Oct 24 2008

Reports of the Demise of Materialism Are Premature – Part II

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Comments: 167

Yesterday I wrote about the Wedge strategy of the intelligent design (ID) movement – namely to undermine and replace the materialist basis of modern science with something that conforms to their ideological spiritual beliefs. This anti-materialist agenda has been primarily targeted against evolution, but now seems to be shifting its attention to neuroscience.

An Unholy Alliance

The Wedge strategy of the Discovery Institute (DI) and other ID proponents is largely a Christian movement. It is interesting that they have found common ground with others who have a very different ideology but share in common a distaste for strict materialism because it is inconvenient to their spiritual agenda.

For example, the New Scientist article discussing this topic quotes Jeffrey Schwartz as saying:

“YOU cannot overestimate how threatened the scientific establishment is by the fact that it now looks like the materialist paradigm is genuinely breaking down. You’re gonna hear a lot in the next calendar year about… how Darwin’s explanation of how human intelligence arose is the only scientific way of doing it… I’m asking us as a world community to go out there and tell the scientific establishment, enough is enough! Materialism needs to start fading away and non-materialist causation needs to be understood as part of natural reality.”

Jeffrey Schwartz is a psychiatrist and a fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information and Design (ISCID), which is an ID think tank and also has as fellows prominent IDers Michael Behe and William Dembski. Schwartz, however, also relates that his dualist epiphany came from his study of Buddhism – an ideology incompatible with Christianity.

The Buddhist connection perhaps explains Schwartz’s predilection for abusing quantum mechanics to “justify” his claims for dualism. Eastern spiritual philosophies have taken a liking to quantum mechanics, or at least to twisting this scientific theory so that it seems to support some Eastern notions.

This puts Schwartz in the same camp as Deepak Chopra and his “quantum healing” popular nonsense, although Chopra is a far less serious intellectual than Schwartz. Another Buddhist and quantum mechanics abuser is B. Allan Wallace (see here for my discussion of Wallace and why the quantum mechanical arguments for dualism are fatally flawed.)

A third faction in the anti-materialist camp are the purveyors of New Age mysticism and pseudoscience. This camp, while distinct, has some overlap with the Buddhists, but is largely incompatible with Christian creationists. An example of this philosophy is  Rustom Roy, who began his career (like Schwartz) as a legitimate scientist, but has recently been spending his time supporting demonstrably absurd notions like homeopathy with “water memory” pseudoscience.

During a debate on homeopathy which I attended with Roy, he declared that “the materialist paradigm is dead.” At the time he justified that bold statement by referencing the abilities of John of God – a charlatan faith healer who had apparently bamboozled Roy with his slight of hand.

Materialism

With all this discussion of materialism I guess I should define it.  Put simply, it is the philosophical position that all physical effects have physical causes. There are no non-physical or non-material causes of physical effects. Historically materialism has been defined as the philosophical belief that matter is all there is – the only type of substance that can be said to exist in nature. Materialism stands specifically in opposition to dualism and other philosophies that posit a spiritual or non-material aspect of existence.

Any viable modern definition of materialism, however, must also include energy, forces, space-time – and anything else discovered by science to exist in nature. In this way materialism is really just a manifestation of naturalism – the philosophy that says that nature (in all of its aspects) is all that there is – there is nothing supernatural. In fact, the term materialism as broadly defined does not have much applicability today. We know that there is more to the universe than ordinary matter, and if you include everything in nature in your philosophy then you have naturalism. Materialism is mostly used in its narrow sense as it applies specifically to consciousness (that consciousness is what the brain does) and stands in opposition to dualism (the belief that consciousness is a non-physical thing unto itself).

Therefore, the broader “anti-materialist” movement of ID, dualism, and various healing pseudosciences is more accurately defined as anti-naturalism. But I guess for propaganda purposes it is better to be against “materialism” than against nature.

The real debate is whether or not science is required to follow methodological naturalism (which it clearly does). Philosophical naturalism is the metaphysical belief that nature is all there is. Methodological naturalism is proceeding as if nature is all there is while remaining agnostic toward the deeper metaphysical question. Another way of looking at it is that methodological naturalism posits that nature is all the we can know, regardless of whether or not it is all that there is (which by definition we cannot know).

Does science require methodological naturalism? Yes. This is the real debate going on between mainstream science and various ideological groups who wish to promote a non-naturalist belief system.  But this philosophical fight was fought in centuries past – and the naturalists won. The fight is over. But the anti-materialists (really anti-naturalists) want to resurrect this fight, and since they cannot win it in the arena of science they want to fight it in the arena of public opinion and then the legal and academic realms.

Science is dependent upon methodological naturalism because a necessary feature of any scientific hypothesis is that it is testable. Non-natural causes are by definition non-falsifiable, and therefore scientific methods cannot act upon them. It is like the now famous cartoon of the mathematician writing out a very complex equation, but in one part simply writes “and then a miracle happens.” His colleague points out that, “I think you need to be a little more explicit in this section.” (I may be paraphrasing.)

Science cannot say, “and then a miracle happens.” There is no way to do an experiment or make an observation that can test a miracle. Miracles, by definition, defy natural forces or explanations. They cannot be constrained, which is a necessary feature of any hypothesis that can be falsified.

ID had this very problem. The notion of an intelligent designer that created life by top-down fiat is not falsifiable because proponents can always argue (and do) that whatever we find in nature was what the designer intended – no matter what it is. The designer is not constrained in any way – not by the laws of physics nor by human logic.

To be clear – science does not say, and cannot say, that all life on earth was not created in an instant by an all powerful designer. It is agnostic towards such a belief. It can only say that such a hypothesis is outside the realm of science because it cannot be tested scientifically. That is methodological naturalism.

As evidence that this is the real issue at stake here is the Kitzmiller v Dover trial involving the teaching of ID in public science classes. Here is a long excerpt from the decision, which makes it clear.

NAS is in agreement that science is limited to empirical, observable and ultimately testable data: “Science is a particular way of knowing about the world. In science, explanations are restricted to those that can be inferred from the confirmable data – the results obtained through observations and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists. Anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation. Explanations that cannot be based upon empirical evidence are not part of science.” (P-649 at 27).

This rigorous attachment to “natural” explanations is an essential attribute to science by definition and by convention. (1:63 (Miller); 5:29-31 (Pennock)). We are in agreement with Plaintiffs’ lead expert Dr. Miller, that from a practical perspective, attributing unsolved problems about nature to causes and forces that lie outside the natural world is a “science stopper.” (3:14-15 (Miller)). As Dr. Miller explained, once you attribute a cause to an untestable supernatural force, a proposition that cannot be disproven, there is no reason to continue seeking natural explanations as we have our answer. Id.

ID is predicated on supernatural causation, as we previously explained and as various expert testimony revealed. (17:96 (Padian); 2:35-36 (Miller); 14:62 (Alters)). ID takes a natural phenomenon and, instead of accepting or seeking a natural explanation, argues that the explanation is supernatural. (5:107 (Pennock)). Further support for the conclusion that ID is predicated on supernatural causation is found in the ID reference book to which ninth grade biology students are directed, Pandas. Pandas states, in pertinent part, as follows:

Stated another way, ID posits that animals did not evolve naturally through evolutionary means but were created abruptly by a non-natural, or supernatural, designer. Defendants’ own expert witnesses acknowledged this point. (21:96-100 (Behe); P-718 at 696, 700 (“implausible that the designer is a natural entity”); 28:21-22 (Fuller) (“. . . ID’s rejection of naturalism and commitment to supernaturalism . . .”); 38:95-96 (Minnich) (ID does not exclude the possibility of a supernatural designer, including deities).

It is notable that defense experts’ own mission, which mirrors that of the IDM itself, is to change the ground rules of science to allow supernatural causation of the natural world, which the Supreme Court in Edwards and the court in McLean correctly recognized as an inherently religious concept. Edwards, 482

The last paragraph is key – the anti-materialist/naturalist movement is really about changing the ground rules of science (re-fighting the fight they lost in the past) to include supernatural explanations, but this is impossible within the necessary framework of science.

There is a further hypocrisy in the anti-materialist/naturalist agenda. They accuse scientists (and me personally) of being “materialist ideologues.” However, science does not profess philosophical materialism or naturalism (of course, individual scientists may) – science only professes methodological naturalism, a necessary prerequisite to science as a method of investigation. Science is agnostic toward the deeper philosophical or ideological question (and, for the record, I am personally as well) . Therefore science is non-ideological. It is they who are anti-materialist and anti-naturalism ideologues – they who are professing an anti-scientific ideology.

Materialism and Neuroscience

ID proponent William Dembski wrote an interesting review of Schwartz’s book The Mind and the Brain called Challenging Materialism’s “Chokehold” on Neuroscience. The article is a good indication of the “unholy alliance” I discussed above – Dembski is trying to praise Schwartz for his attack on materialism as it applies to consciousness, without endorsing his Buddhist or quantum mechanical notions. We also see in this essay an interplay between the two main lines of argument for dualism.

Schwartz’s essential argument for a non-materialist interpretation of mind is the phenomenon of plasticity. This is the ability of the brain to change its own hard-wiring in response to use. Incidentally, this is identical to the argument put forward by Deepak Chopra. Schwartz calls this phenomenon “self-directed neuroplasticity.”

Neuroplasticity is well established, and researchers in the last 10 years have discovered that even adults retain significantly more plasticity than previously thought. We have also discovered at least one mechanism of this plasticity – adults also retain neural stem cells is larger numbers than previously thought. This is not controversial.

The dualism argument derives from the fact that we can change our brain activity by thinking. Dembski writes:

From brain scans, Schwartz found that certain regions in the brain of OCD patients (the caudate nucleus in particular) exhibited abnormal patterns of activity. By itself this finding is consistent with a materialist view of mind (if, as materialism requires, brain enables mind, then abnormal patterns of brain activity are likely to be correlated with dysfunctional mental states). Nonetheless, having found abnormal patterns of brain activity, Schwartz then had OCD patients engage in intensive mental effort through what he called relabeling, reattributing, refocusing, and revaluing (the 4 Rs). In the case of compulsive hand-washing, this would involve a patient acknowledging that the hands are in fact clean (relabeling); attributing anxieties and doubts about the hands being dirty to a misfunctioning brain (reattributing); directing thoughts and actions away from handwashing and toward productive ends (refocusing); and, lastly, understanding at a deep level the senselessness of OCD messages (revaluing).

Schwartz documents not only that patients who undertook this therapy experienced considerable relief from OCD symptoms but also that their brain scans indicated a lasting realignment of brain-activity patterns. Thus, without any intervention directly affecting their brains, OCD patients were able to reorganize their brains by intentionally modifying their thoughts and behaviors. The important point for Schwartz here is not simply that modified thoughts and behaviors permanently altered patterns of brain activity, but that such modifications resulted from, as he calls it, “mindful attention” — conscious and purposive thoughts or actions in which the agent adopts the stance of a detached observer.

Schwartz’s technique is really just a form of cognitive therapy.  Interestingly he equates an alternate approach of behavioral therapy (making OCD patients keep their hands dirty, for example) as a manifestation of the materialist view of mind, while his cognitive therapy is more compassionate and spiritual. This is a non sequitur, however. Many therapists use both cognitive and behavioral techniques, and assessments of their effectiveness are independent of materialist philosophy, as is the ethics surrounding specific behavioral techniques. But to the anti-materialists everything is about materialism.

The core argument is that the mind (a non-physical substance) is changing the physical brain. But his is just a circular argument – because if the mind comes from brain, than this is just the brain changing the brain. You can only interpret this as a non-physical cause changing the brain if you assume that the mind is non-physical in the first place.

Even Dembski has to admit this weakness of Schwartz’s argument, writing:

“If you want a knock-down argument against materialism and materialist accounts of mind, this won’t do it.”

But Dembski then goes on to argue (absurdly) that even though this argument by itself is worthless,  it is still compelling when combined with other (worthless) arguments against materialism, such as the strong anthropic principle. As further evidence for the “unholy alliance” he even cites Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe – that’s pretty desperate for a movement trying to grasp at scientific respectability.

The second type of argument used for a non-material interpretation of mind is nothing more than a god-of-the-gaps argument. This is the type of argument favored by Michael Egnor, with whom I have sparred numerous times in the past. Egnor essentially argues that the modern tools of neuroscience do not conform precisely to mental activity, and this discrepancy (gap) is due to the non-material part of the mind. Of course, the far simpler explanation is that MRI’s and EEG’s have limited resolution, and our models of brain anatomy and function are incomplete (gaps). Egnor sees dualism in the current gaps in neuroscience in the exact same logically fallacious way that creationists see God (or ID) in the gaps of the fossil record.

Of course, any science could be targeted with the same god-of-the-gaps strategy, and such arguments have been lampooned, as in this “intelligent falling” article in The Onion, by inserting ID into the gaps in our current theories of gravitation. So, why attack neuroscience and not Newtonian mechanics? I think there are two primary reasons. The first is that some findings in science are more emotionally disagreeable than others. Evolution tells us that humans are animals, and neuroscience tells us that all of our hopes and fears are just chemicals and electrical signals in that lump of meat that sits in our skulls. Evolution and neuroscience are more personal than gravity.

The second reason is that these sciences deal with very abstract and difficult to imagine natural processes. Evolution unfolds over millions of years, a time scale that is beyond human experience and therefore difficult to fathom. Consciousness arises from brain function as an emergent phenomenon of a very complex system. It is difficult even for scientists to fully wrap their imaginations around the concepts involved.

These sciences are therefore vulnerable to ideological attack. Their science is solid and progressing nicely (which is a testament to their underlying assumptions) but there are gaps in our current understanding, they are conceptually very challenging, and they potentially strike at our self-image. The anti-materialists offer in their place a simple and self-affirming ideology. Forget all the nuances about punctuated equilibrium – you were created by a loving parent-figure. Forget emergence and neurons – you are a luminous and immortal being.

Conclusion

This all get’s back to the Wedge strategy – the anti-materialists cannot win (and in fact have already lost) in the arena of science. Science requires methodological naturalism. All this talk about “materialist ideology” is all a diversion from the truth, which is that creationists, dualists, and proponents of various kinds of woo want to change the fundamental and necessary rules of science to allow their religious beliefs to pass as science. They are doing this for purely ideological reasons, and they don’t care if they have to destroy modern science in the process. Yet, they have the gall to accuse scientists of being “materialist ideologues” when they are just defending of method of inquiry from ideological assault.

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167 responses so far

167 Responses to “Reports of the Demise of Materialism Are Premature – Part II”

  1. jugaon 24 Oct 2008 at 9:44 am

    “Evolution tells us that … all of our hopes and fears are just chemicals and electrical signals in that lump of meat that sits in our skulls”

    If hopes and fears where *just* signals in the brain, we would just study them as such. We mostly study them in psychology, literature, philosophy etc, which are non-physical disciplines. We may reach a point where we understand exactly what’s happening in the brain when we’re afraid, but will that enable us to overcome our fears? It doesn’t seem likely.

  2. Steven Novellaon 24 Oct 2008 at 9:50 am

    juga – I was referring to ultimate cause, not that fear reduces to chemical reactions without higher order implications, which is what you were talking about.

  3. superdaveon 24 Oct 2008 at 10:20 am

    Juga, i would google, “black box model”.

    These guys are picking a terrible time for their battle. The race for green energy sources seems poised to reinvigorate popular interest in science the same way the space race did in the 60s. As long as we can get out the statement that attacking materialism is attacking science itself, the public will be on our side.

  4. Fifion 24 Oct 2008 at 10:24 am

    juga – Why doesn’t it seem likely that understanding the physiology of an emotion will help us better understand how to manage/treat/moderate/change that emotion? The fields of psychiatry and psychology have changed since neurobiology has been able to measure and locate what’s going on in the brain during certain experiences. Neuroscience and psychology are hardly worlds apart! Modern psychology – as taught in universities not institutes of woo – is not a “non-physical” discipline and neuroscience goes on in psychology departments.

  5. Fifion 24 Oct 2008 at 10:29 am

    superdave – One thing, “materialism” to most people just means being really into having possessions, not a philosopy. This confusion of terminology is one reason that it’s so often leveled by believers in woo as an insult here. For instance, while I may fall into the category of being a materialist in a philosophical sense (not sure if I really do but for the sake of this example let’s say I do), I’m not a materialist in the colloquial sense (I’m not particularly into getting and hoarding stuff and things, though I have a great appreciation for beautiful things I have no need to own them). I’d suggest that most lay people understand “materialist” as the colloquial meaning and part of the communications strategy is to paint doctors and medicine as being all about money (aka materialist and therefore greedy).

  6. daijiyobuon 24 Oct 2008 at 10:41 am

    Excellent post.

    SN wrote: “the real debate is whether or not science is required to follow methodological naturalism (which is [sp., it!] clearly does) [...] does science require methodological naturalism? Yes. This is the real debate going on between mainstream science and various ideological groups who wish to promote a non-naturalist belief system.”

    I’ve observed that there are educational charlatans posturing as “science” and “natural” — a certain ‘evidenceless methodological supernaturalism secticity.’

    They state that “natural health science” [natural! science!] is founded upon such articles of faith as “spirit” [a constellation I call "metaphysical holism"] and — when you decode their language to its essence, vitalism [a belief, often hidden, that falsely states that it is a scientific fact that physiology is run by a 'purposeful life spirit'!] — and, unfortunately, their media outlets are profoundly mainstream

    (see http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/college/items/22425 ).

    They call themselves “science-based natural medicine”

    (see http://www.bastyr.edu/about/pizzorno/ ).

    They feed on the college-bound.

    -r.c.

  7. Jim Shaveron 24 Oct 2008 at 10:45 am

    As further evidence for the “unholy alliance” he even cites Dead Radin’s The Conscious Universe…

    Was that a Freudian slip, Steve? :D

  8. Steven Novellaon 24 Oct 2008 at 10:53 am

    Jim – thanks, I fixed it. I have the best “typos” :)

  9. superdaveon 24 Oct 2008 at 11:12 am

    Fifi, good point, being a PhD student, I often forget the colloquial meanings of words! However, the colloquial meaning is so different from the philosophical/scientific meaning, that successfully arguing against materialism in that sense would ultimately not accomplish what they want. If that is there tactic it will be an abysmal failure.

  10. superdaveon 24 Oct 2008 at 11:14 am

    To continue my point, you argue too strongly from that point of view it will be difficult for them to then substitute back the definition of materialism that they are actually challenging.

  11. Fifion 24 Oct 2008 at 11:29 am

    superdave – Well it would only be a failure if you were actually trying to win an argument legitimately. If the intent is to muddy the waters and associate the philosophy of Materialism with the colloquial understanding of “materialism”- and thereby paint doctors and medicine to be all about money, profit and greed and all that’s wrong today’s world, etc – then they’re already successful.

    I’m not taking issue with a discussion amongst philosophers using specialized languge, I’m just pointing out that how it will read and be understood by the general public. The colloquial meaning of “materialism” is extremely common and well entrenched, trying to replace it with the philosophical meaning will be very hard (and kind of a waste of effort really).

  12. Fifion 24 Oct 2008 at 11:33 am

    One of the things that happens when a specialist insists lay people use a colloquial word as it’s used in their particular specialty is that they alienate who they’re trying to communicate with – I see people making assumptions about meaning which cause confusion all the time. It’s quite common. In the case of CAM/ID/Big Vita vs science, it’s often intentionally used by advocates of woo whose main objective is to sully science in the public mind and then replace it with pseudoscience.

  13. daedalus2uon 24 Oct 2008 at 11:42 am

    If cognitive plasticity were a manifestation of a non-material mind, wouldn’t that plasticity act at the characteristic time scale of that non-material mind?

    Cognitive plasticity goes both ways; there is positive plasticity where new skills can be learned and negative plasticity in that unused skills atrophy. If the non-material mind can atrophy if it is not exercised by a material brain, what about it is non-material?

  14. daijiyobuon 24 Oct 2008 at 12:10 pm

    Dr. N. wrote:

    “creationists, dualists, and proponents of various kinds of woo want to change the fundamental and necessary rules of science to allow their religious beliefs to pass as science.”

    This is always a Bill of Rights and human rights issue / threat, fundamentally.

    The above quote applies, of course, very well to the Discovery Institute’s overall strategy of ‘creation science’, and we saw what happened back in Dover with that.

    Here’s something coincident, from the woo side mentioned, which is as much a transgression as anything from back in PA:

    what I find so bizarrely geographically coincident is that basically the same city as the DI — Seattle, WA — is also the location for Bastyr University’s “natural health” clinic (Bastyr’s main campus is in Kenmore, WA, just over the city border to the east) and Bastyr sells educational products labeled as “natural health sciences that integrate mind, body, spirit and nature [vitalism]” (from the “Natural Healers” website).

    It’s fascinating that therein — in such epistemic and ontological conflation [EC, OC] — the natural contains the science-ejected and supernatural and this is all within science. Facts and articles of faith [the supernatural] are artificially made indistinguishable and incorrectly labeled natural [you can't make this stuff up,'the supernatural-imaginary artifice as natural-scientific fact'].

    So, maybe, as a cheeky retort to the Dr. N. quote I pulled, an answer may be:

    “haven’t they?! And they can!!! And it’s great business.”

    The “Bastyr ruse”, as I call it, is as much a threat to freedom of conscience and church-state separation as anything going on immediately in the ID arena with publically funded schools.

    Once nonscience is falsely labeled to include what it truly doesn’t — articles of faith [and deceptive commerce can be visited upon the education customer without penalty] — there’s no distinction between belief and fact…and there is no Establishment Clause, therein.

    If a belief is categorically labeled as mandatory fact, a basic choice has been denied, and one has lost a basic human right.

    This is the connection I see between ND woo, EC & OC, and civil freedoms.

    This is also why the Europe’s P.A.C.E in Resolution 1518 (2007) has stated that teaching ID-creationism in a science classroom — and overall, any kind of EC & OC pseudoscience, in my view — violates basic human rights.

    -r.c.

  15. weingon 24 Oct 2008 at 12:52 pm

    One thing’s for sure. Wishful thinking will always be with us.

  16. daedalus2uon 24 Oct 2008 at 1:08 pm

    With all this talk of materialism, the philosophical definition has actually replaced the colloquial one in my initial understanding. When I hear Madonna’s “Material Girl” I actually think of women who are skeptics, Harriet, Fifi and the Skep Chicks.

    http://www.lyricsfreak.com/m/madonna/material+girl_20086925.html

  17. IanJNon 24 Oct 2008 at 3:08 pm

    “The core argument is that the mind (a non-physical substance) is changing the physical brain. But his is just a circular argument – because if the mind comes from brain, than this is just the brain changing the brain. You can only interpret this as a non-physical cause changing the brain if you assume that the mind is non-physical in the first place.”

    In fairness, I think the argument is supposed to be something like:

    (1) the brain is a closed system
    (2) a closed system cannot alter itself
    (3) the mind can alter the brain

    :. the mind cannot be the brain

    (I’m not agreeing, mind you.)

  18. Steven Novellaon 24 Oct 2008 at 4:15 pm

    IanJN – premises 1 and 2 are false. The brain is not a closed system. It receives information from the outside. Also, why can’t a closed system change itself?

  19. Blake Staceyon 24 Oct 2008 at 4:59 pm

    If neuroplasticity is evidence for a non-material mind making itself felt through quantum spookiness, then all the scabbed knees of childhood are evidence for quantum skin.

  20. sharkeyon 24 Oct 2008 at 5:13 pm

    “Also, why can’t a closed system change itself?”

    That’s an interesting question. My first instinct is to say that premise 2 is correct; a closed system cannot alter itself. For instance, pool balls bouncing on a billiard table will always bounce the same way (assuming an ideal model), and nothing can alter that.

    But, that “alter” word is pesky. Taken to mean “non-predictable change”, non-linear-yet-closed systems can “alter” themselves; for instance, computer-based weather simulations are closed systems, but can self-interact in very unpredictable ways.

    The brain is a non-linear system (leaving aside feedback mechanisms, the artificial neural networks I studied modeled neuron activation using a non-linear function), so one might expect to see unpredictable changes even with no input.

    Back on topic: There’s no such thing as ghosts.

  21. DevilsAdvocateon 24 Oct 2008 at 5:27 pm

    i be lay people not toopit. i unnerstan diffurnce tween filosoffical materialism and cultural econimic materialism all by myseff. i tire sumtimes at how litle some think us lay people unnerstan. doctor say i talk pretty one day. i like pie.

  22. IanJNon 24 Oct 2008 at 5:27 pm

    Steve,

    I agree that it’s a faulty argument, but there’s a certain counter-intuitiveness about ‘brain changing brain.’ Just trying to understand the thought process.

    Ian.

  23. pecon 24 Oct 2008 at 7:21 pm

    “his dualist epiphany came from his study of Buddhism – an ideology incompatible with Christianity.”

    It is not, you are misinformed.

  24. pecon 24 Oct 2008 at 7:24 pm

    “With all this discussion of materialism I guess I should define it. Put simply, it is the philosophical position that all physical effects have physical causes. There are no non-physical or non-material causes of physical effects. ”

    Oh really? And how do you define “physical?” Is gravity physical — it certainly is a cause of physical effects, but it’s hard to see anything physical about it. Unless you widen your definition of “physical” to include everything that science is already aware of. In which case your statement means nothing.

  25. pecon 24 Oct 2008 at 7:30 pm

    “ID had this very problem. The notion of an intelligent designer that created life by top-down fiat is not falsifiable”

    That is NOT what ID says. There is nothing in ID about anything super-natural. ID says that nature is intelligent, and there is nothing unscientific about believing that.

    Unless you are trying to say that Einstein, who believed in universal intelligence, wasn’t scientific. Are you saying that you are a scientist because you believe nature is dead and mindless, while Einstein could not have been a real scientist because he did not share your ideology?

  26. RBHon 24 Oct 2008 at 8:13 pm

    pec wrote

    “his dualist epiphany came from his study of Buddhism – an ideology incompatible with Christianity.”

    It is not, you are misinformed.

    Not as far as some Buddhists are concerned, perhaps, but on the evangelical Christianity side there’s some conflict. For example, from The Buddhist Channel, quoting an evangelical Christian in Mongolia:

    Certainly I’m no fan of Buddhism. The teachings of Buddhism cannot hold a candle to the life of Jesus Christ. As I’ve written previously, Christianity is superior to Buddhism ethically, historically, and factually.

  27. DevilsAdvocateon 24 Oct 2008 at 8:17 pm

    Hmm, does Pec think a thing to be not ‘physical’ if you can’t pick it up and hold it?

  28. Steven Novellaon 24 Oct 2008 at 9:26 pm

    I wrote: “Any viable modern definition of materialism, however, must also include energy, forces, space-time – and anything else discovered by science to exist in nature.”

    pec responded: “Oh really? And how do you define “physical?” Is gravity physical — it certainly is a cause of physical effects, but it’s hard to see anything physical about it.”

    Sigh!

  29. Potter1000on 24 Oct 2008 at 9:40 pm

    Is stupid physical? What does it look like?

    (For the record, I’m not calling anyone stupid–just some of the things they think and say. In general, I’m at least as stupid as the next guy.)

  30. Brian Englishon 24 Oct 2008 at 9:45 pm

    That is NOT what ID says. There is nothing in ID about anything super-natural. ID says that nature is intelligent, and there is nothing unscientific about believing that.
    Well if it’s scientific, how do we disprove this intelligence? How do we show that nature isn’t intelligent?
    If it’s science, we can use it to test its predictions. What are they?

  31. vodyanojon 24 Oct 2008 at 9:53 pm

    pec: “Unless you are trying to say that Einstein, who believed in universal intelligence, wasn’t scientific. ”

    Please provide specific examples of the ways in which this purported belief was used anywhere in the formulations of SR/GR. (I say purported because I see no evidence that Einstein believed in any such thing.)

  32. TheBlackCaton 24 Oct 2008 at 10:41 pm

    That’s an interesting question. My first instinct is to say that premise 2 is correct; a closed system cannot alter itself. For instance, pool balls bouncing on a billiard table will always bounce the same way (assuming an ideal model), and nothing can alter that.

    3 words: fission chain reaction. The initial radioactive decay events are entirely random, as is their direction and which other nuclei (if any) they collide with, but the collisions will cause further fission events, and so on. Two absolutely identical samples, atom-for-atom, will have entirely different decay patterns without any external influence.

  33. Roberton 25 Oct 2008 at 12:53 am

    Steve,

    You are right that scientists overwhelmingly adhere to methodological naturalism, but I think it is a mistake to claim that science requires it.

    For example, if supernatural things were not testable, then what is the point of Randi’s challenge?

    I don’t want to play darts with the dictionary, we may just be equivocating “natural”.

    My main point is that if you preach that science must presuppose methodological naturalism, then you are being dogmatic and unscientific. A few years ago there was a big blog war about this, with Brian Leiter wielding his big brain like a cudgel against the ID’ers:

    http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2004/04/on_methodologic.html

    Not to be misunderstood, I am a strong supporter of MN for pragmatic reasons, and also consider myself a philosophical naturalist. However, I think it is wrong to claim that MN is required a priori for science to function.

    Thanks for all your hard work in this perpetual game of wack-a-mole.

    Robert

  34. Fifion 25 Oct 2008 at 7:28 am

    Devils Advocate – I myself am a lay person – as are we all are when we’re outside of whatever our speciality is that we’re not lay people in. I discovered the name of the philosophical theory because someone called me a “materialist” and I had some confusion about what they meant (they also accused me of being a dualist) – so I asked because it was starting to sound like they were accusing me of being a pistol weilding greed moneky. (An image I found quite entertaining but a tad confusing in the context.) It appeared they also had some confusion about what they meant (that materialist/dualist thing that doesn’t quite align) and actually did in many ways equate Materialism with materialism (though it was clear they were merely repeating something they’d read or heard somewhere, they weren’t actually conversant in philosophy). I’ve since had someone who is an expert in philosophy go a bit more indepth – I appreciated him explaining it to me in terms I could understand (not having a degree in philosophy…though philosophers seem to argue about meaning of words and phrases more than artists and semiotians do! ;-) )

    There’s no shame in not knowing something and it doesn’t mean someone is stupid because they’re not conversant in specialized langagues. It’s also not belittling to acknowledge that a word has a colloquial meaning that is more dominant amongst non-philosophers than the specialized meaning. That doesn’t mean people can’t learn the philosophy. For me, the understanding that mind arises from the brain is just something I grew up with as reality, so perhaps I’m an unconscioius materialist or something but for me it’s just what is not a philosophy. I guess I just find it a bit weird because I’ve always had a concept of subjective and objective reality and the way one chooses to live may be based upon a philosophy but reality remains the same whatever story or explanation we come up with for it. So, for me, personal subjective reality may be related to philosophy but the larger reality just is and any philosophy about it is really window dressing (or explaining after the fact).

  35. Fifion 25 Oct 2008 at 7:29 am

    that should read… “I myself am a lay person – as are we all are when we’re outside of whatever our speciality is that we’re not experts or specialists in.”

  36. Steven Novellaon 25 Oct 2008 at 7:35 am

    Robert – you said “My main point is that if you preach that science must presuppose methodological naturalism, then you are being dogmatic and unscientific.”

    I think you are confusing methodological with philosophical in this statement. Methodological naturalism just means that science considers only nature in its methods. How can a method be dogmatic? Only philosophical naturalism makes any claims about reality.

    You brought up Randi’s challenge – but the rules of Randi’s challenge include that the claims must be made in a specific way so that they can be tested by the methods of science. You must state precisely what you can do so that it can be tested – it doesn’t matter how you can do it or what your underlying metaphysics are.

    MN only says that you cannot say “then a miracle happens.” For example with ID – they posit a designer that does not have to accord with any law of nature, and that cannot be constrained. Such a thing cannot be tested by science.

  37. Fifion 25 Oct 2008 at 7:42 am

    um, made more sense the first time! …”I myself am a lay person – as are we all are when we’re outside of whatever our speciality is that we’re experts in.”

  38. Fifion 25 Oct 2008 at 8:17 am

    Well actuall Christianity and Buddhism can have some compatible beliefs (just like the godless such as myself can share values like compassion for humanity with the devout who value compassion). Ultimately, however, their fundamental beliefs and concepts about the world, explanation for phenomena, and their mythologies are quite different. There are also many schools of Buddhism (some in quite violent conflict with each other), just as there are many schools of Christianity with conflicting messages. There are, of course, both godless and theistic versions of Buddhism, and the version of Buddhism introduced by the Dalai Lama to the West was secularized (he is a proponent of a more secularized, or at least less superstitious, version of Buddhism).

    Tibetan Buddhist beliefs are inherently incompatible with Christianity because of the many devas and demons that play a role (a holdover from tribal religions that were incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism) and beliefs in reincarnation. That said, the very ornate visual nature of Tibetan Buddhism does share something with the ornateness of Catholicism (though they don’t share symbolism and work from different compositional bases). Chinese and Thai Buddhism are somewhat different but still not compatible, ditto for Zen Buddhism.

    Meanwhile, in America, Christains are trying to make sure yoga isn’t taught in schools because it’s considered a form of Hindu worship by some devout Christians (Buddhism grew out of Hinduism). Whatever one’s feelings on this are, it still indicates that devout Christians in the US don’t generally embrace Eastern religions as equivalent. All in all, there’s not much similarity apart from the basic stuff that’s about being human not about being religious – and that has to do with being a human animal not with what religion one does or doesn’t believe in (and believing in god certainly doesn’t automatically make someone compassionate, it seems to have quite the opposite effect on some people!).

  39. DevilsAdvocateon 25 Oct 2008 at 10:12 am

    Randi tests claims of the paranormal, not the paranormal. There’s a difference.

  40. pecon 25 Oct 2008 at 10:43 am

    I wrote my comments as I was reading the post, to see if any would show up. So when I asked for Steve’s definition of “physical” it was before I got to the paragraph where he defined it as everything already known to science.

  41. Roberton 25 Oct 2008 at 1:01 pm

    Steve,

    “Does science require methodological naturalism? Yes.”

    I think that statement is wrong. What if the intercessory prayer studies showed a clear benefit?

    I think you are conflating methodological naturalism and empiricism. They are not the same.

    From Wikipedia:

    “[Methodological Naturalism] requires that scientific hypotheses are explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events.”

    I could make a scientific hypothesis that me praying to Odin will make the stock market go up and praying to Yahweh will make it go down. If I demonstrate this hypothesis works 100% of the time, I think you would be hard pressed to find a natural cause.

    Now you may wish to argue that the power of my prayers do have a natural cause, and have nothing to do with Odin or God, but that would just reveal your a priori commitment to naturalism.

    As I said in my first comment, perhaps we are just playing word games here. However, it seems to me that most philosophers of science would NOT agree with you that science requires methodological naturalism. (I’m not appealing to authority or popularity here, just saying how it is.)

    This is from the naturaism.org:

    “Intelligent design fails as science not because science a priori rules out the supernatural (it doesn’t), but because the intelligent design hypothesis has no merit as a scientific explanation.”

    The problem I see with statements like “science requires methodological naturalism” is that you are validating the complaints the ID’ers have been making.

    In my opinion, a statement like “scientists assume methodological naturalism because accumulated experience has shown this to be an efficient and pragmatic approach” would be better than “science requires methodological naturalism”.

  42. Roberton 25 Oct 2008 at 1:15 pm

    Steve,

    An addendum. This is from randi.org:

    “At JREF, we offer a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.”

    So it seems clear to me that Randi believes supernatural claims CAN be tested with science. Such a test would use the scientific method, but would not be using methodological naturalism.

    All this boils down to what exactly we mean by “methodological naturalism”.

  43. mufion 25 Oct 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Good essay, although it reminded me of a book (from the other side of the debate) that a religious friend pressed on me roughly ten years ago, called Reason in the Balance, by creationist author and law professor Phillip E. Johnson. It was an unconvincing attack on methodological naturalism, which Johnson basically deems a game based on false assumptions, and its weaknesses were largely the same as those listed above (e.g. his theistic alternative is unfalsifiable and asserts a “god of the gaps” mode).

    But I suspect that Johnson shares an intuition with many religious skeptics, which is that the bridge between methodological and metaphysical naturalism is short and requires effort to avoid crossing—thus his strained attempt to distance himself and his flock from both by waging battles against science. So, in a strange way, I can see where he’s coming from.

    Sure, strictly speaking, we’re all agnostics—even with respect to commonly acknowledged human inventions like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, not to mention with respect to the pantheons of deities from antiquity and other parts of the world. That said, I don’t accept that Johnson actually knows that the Trinity exists, but I accept that he harbors a metaphysical belief which others (including myself) lack.

    More to the point, if one lacks Johnson’s commitment to the Trinity and other religious doctrines that we now label “supernatural”, and one is committed to methodological naturalism (a.k.a. “science”), then it seems that one is by default a metaphysical naturalist, or at least leans in that direction. If so, then labeling oneself “agnostic” on metaphysical questions probably cedes way more epistemic weight to supernatural beliefs than they deserve.

  44. geneon 25 Oct 2008 at 2:09 pm

    I agree with Fif re: how lay people view the term “materialism” to be synonymous with greed and a need to possess “things” as to the more philosophical use of the term. Just as language can clarify when the meaning of the term is agreed to, when it is not it can sow confusion.

    For the sake of clarity re: the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” I think we can make the distinction more clear: we can also stop using “supernatural” the way that the IDiots/creationists do and substitute “unnatural.”

    The prefix “super” makes it seem as if their view is somehow superior to natural explanations, when in fact it is not only not superior but the opposite, hence my preference for the prefix “un.”

    Unnatural, as opposed to supernatural, will also stick in their craw since a large number of the religious (Xtians in particular) use the term “unnnatural” to refer to behavior they find unappealing (such as homosexuality, etc.).

  45. Brian Englishon 25 Oct 2008 at 2:41 pm

    Robert: At JREF, we offer a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.

    That showing or evidence must be something in the natural world. Otherwise how would it be measured or observed? It may have supernatural sources, but to be observed it has natural effects, it is therefore in the realm of MN, or science if you will.

    Robert, define science that doesn’t test observations that are natural. How would science make any observations of non-natural events?

  46. Roberton 25 Oct 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Brian,

    It seems we are just arguing definitions here. Usually methodological naturalism means a method that only looks for “natural” causes and explanations.

    I cannot define science precisely the way you wish. Science has a demarcation problem just like many complex concepts. Life cannot be defined precisely. and so with science.

    Suppose a priest claimed that exorcism was more efficacious than Haldol for treating schizophrenic delusions. This claim could be tested scientifically, and that testing would not require that we look for only natural explanations.

    You seem to be saying that scientific methods and methodological naturalism are the same. I do not think they are.

    Rather, scientists have adopted methodological naturalism because it has shown again and again to be a fruitful approach, while looking for supernatural things has always been a complete failure.

    I’m afraid you and Steve are playing right into the hands of the guys at the Discovery Institute.

  47. Brian Englishon 25 Oct 2008 at 3:36 pm

    Robert:Rather, scientists have adopted methodological naturalism because it has shown again and again to be a fruitful approach, while looking for supernatural things has always been a complete failure. So you agree that methodological naturalism is the approach science uses? What is your problem then? Science uses MN because looking for supernatural things has always been a complete failure
    You seem to be contradicting yourself. But anyway.

  48. Fifion 25 Oct 2008 at 3:38 pm

    Robert – Your choice of exorcism is an odd one (or designed to create a science vs religion debate) since it would only address a delusion that involved a belief that one was being possessed by a demon. If one was actually possessed by a demon (the reality of demons aside for the moment), one wouldn’t be delusional so the priest wouldn’t be “treating” the delusion. If, on the other hand, one wasn’t possessed by a devil but rather having a psychotic breakdown that included the delusion one was possessed by the devil, then treating a person with an exorcism would only reinforce the delusion and cause further harm.

    Sadly, “treating” medical conditions with exorcisms has led to a number of deaths – children are at particular risk since it’s easy for them to be accidentally smothered by the exorcist and parents holding them down when they resist having the ‘demons’ cast out.

  49. Brian Englishon 25 Oct 2008 at 3:38 pm

    Or in other words, give an example of science that doesn’t use MN. A distinction that makes no difference doesn’t seem to matter much. Science uses MN, it is synonymous with MN, unless reliable science not using MN can be demonstrated.

    I’m afraid you and Steve are playing right into the hands of the guys at the Discovery Institute. So we should lie and say science uses supernatural ‘methods’?

  50. Fifion 25 Oct 2008 at 3:50 pm

    I’m still unclear on how Robert thinks all this plays into the hands of the Discovery Institute but then I’m most definitely not an expert in philosophy. Could you explain in lay terms how it does Robert?

    Personally I think there’s a danger in allowing science and pseudoscience to become contextualized by anti-science types as being merely a difference of opinion, philosophy or ideology (that’s what they’re clearly trying to convey and they’ve been relatively successful at it so far, so much so that they’ve managed to have huge inroads amongst both freethinking types and hippies/boomers AND their natural enemies the fundamentalists).

  51. | PoliticsMuch.comon 25 Oct 2008 at 4:28 pm

    [...] This is about as good as it gets in terms of defining the scientific/philosophical nature of “materialism,” “methodological naturalism,” and the fundamental worldview of science. Unfortunately, like most such descriptions, it all but ignores the rhetorical sleight-of-hand that underlies much of the advocacy for anti-materialism. Steven Novella comes close to understanding it here: Therefore, the broader “anti-materialist” movement of ID, dualism, and various healing pseudosciences is more accurately defined as anti-naturalism. But I guess for propaganda purposes it is better to be against “materialism” than against nature. [...]

  52. Roberton 25 Oct 2008 at 4:38 pm

    “So you agree that methodological naturalism is the approach science uses?”

    It is an approach that most scientists use most of the time. Let me be as clear as I can. When I use the phrase “methodological naturalism”, I mean a method whereby scientists assume a natural cause and do not waste time looking for supernatural causes. Today, nobody would waste time looking for demons or ferries. This was not always the case.

    “What is your problem then? Science uses MN because looking for supernatural things has always been a complete failure
    You seem to be contradicting yourself. But anyway.”

    How am I contradicting myself? I think supernaturalism is idiotic. I think supernatural hypotheses are a waste of time.

    “Or in other words, give an example of science that doesn’t use MN.”

    Randi’s challenge.

    You guys are misunderstanding me completely.

    Several hundred years of accumulated scientific experience has shown us that looking for natural causes is fruitful, while looking for supernatural causes always fails.

    Based on that experience, most scientist just now assume that we will only find natural causes, so they only look for natural causes. This pragmatic approach is called “methodological naturalism”.

  53. Roberton 25 Oct 2008 at 4:47 pm

    Fifi,

    You said:

    “I’m still unclear on how Robert thinks all this plays into the hands of the Discovery Institute but then I’m most definitely not an expert in philosophy. Could you explain in lay terms how it does Robert?”

    The Discovery Institute with their creationist agenda has always charged that scientists automatically rule out supernaturalism. Steve gives them fuel for his argument by saying “science requires methodological naturalism”.

    I would never give them such fuel.

  54. Fifion 25 Oct 2008 at 4:59 pm

    Robert – What is supernaturalism?

  55. Jason Streitfeldon 25 Oct 2008 at 5:46 pm

    Robert,

    I take issue with your understanding of methodological naturalism.

    You offered this by way of a definition: “When I use the phrase “methodological naturalism”, I mean a method whereby scientists assume a natural cause and do not waste time looking for supernatural causes.”

    Your definition supposes that one could, in theory, look for supernatural causes. You therefore regard methodological naturalism as optional, when in fact there is no way to carry out a scientific investigation without it.

    One cannot, in theory, look for supernatural causes. The term “supernatural” defines such causes out of observability; it is an upturned nose at science, nothing more.

    Methodological naturalism is not an ideology. Don’t let the “-ism” at the end mislead you. It is, in fact, the only consistent and coherent approach to systematic discovery. You seem to be the one falling into the Discovery Institute’s trap by failing to acknowledge this.

  56. Darwiniana » Neurologica on brain/mindon 25 Oct 2008 at 5:58 pm

    [...] Neurologica blog, Reports of the Demise of Materialism Are Premature, another response to Jeffrey Schwartz’ thinking on the brain/mind dualism. I addressed this [...]

  57. daedalus2uon 25 Oct 2008 at 6:06 pm

    Robert, Randi’s challenge doesn’t presuppose a supernatural explanation, and a successful payout wouldn’t prove a supernatural event. What it would show is an “anomaly”, an event that could not be explained by the natural explanations that Randi thought to exclude by his experimental design.

    If there were a Star Trek transporter, that device could be used to “beat” Randi’s challenge. That would not be a “supernatural” event, it would be a natural event but using a technology that was sufficiently advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic.

    Randi’s challenge doesn’t pretend to assert that technology such as Star Trek transporters are impossible, he is simply asserting that individuals who claim to be able to do certain things are lying or mistaken and he is willing to pay out a great deal of money if he is shown to be wrong.

    If one did have access to a Star Trek transporter, one could scam Randi and take his million dollars. That would be chump change to what one could legitimately make if one actually had a Star Trek transporter.

    One can examine supernatural claims, by examining the physical results claimed to be produced on demand by the supposed supernatural events. That is the only way that any proposed model of reality can be tested, natural, supernatural, or other.

  58. Roberton 25 Oct 2008 at 6:12 pm

    Fifi,

    I have asked many supernaturalists what they mean by supernatural, and I have yet to be given a concept that I found in any way coherent.

    My claim is this: if supernatural beings or forces exist and they somehow interact with this universe, then they in principle can be tested by science.

    I am afraid that I have been misunderstood here. I am a huge supporter of methodological naturalism as I have defined it. I support it for pragmatic reasons.

    I am arguing against Steve’s claim that science requires methodological naturalism. I think naturalism .org has a great explanation of what science is:

    A first cut at some basic characteristics of scientific explanation:

    1. Other things being equal, science seeks the simplest and most parsimonious peer-reviewed explanations, based on empirical, intersubjective evidence.

    2. Science tries to minimize the number of unverifiable or ad-hoc assumptions in constructing explanations.

    3. Science is conservative in hypothesizing new explanatory factors: to the extent possible, explanations will be sought among phenomena already known to exist before positing other phenomena as explanatory factors. Science is not unnecessarily inflationary in its ontology.

    4. 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.

    5. Entities accepted by science are either directly observed or indirectly inferred via experiment or theory, where such inference predicts specific characteristics of the entity that can be tested for in later experiments or that bear on other predictions.

    6. Science seeks explanations which connect phenomena with one another, which unify different levels and domains of phenomena, and which generate testable predictions. Good scientific explanations are in these senses productive.

    7. In science, an explanation can’t simply be posited to match the target phenomenon in order to fill an explanatory gap – there has to be independent evidence of the features of the explanation.

    8. Before positing explanatory factors that have no other empirical support besides their function of filling an explanatory gap, science will declare the target phenomena to be as yet not fully explained.

    9. Science will put stock in a provisional, as yet incomplete explanation involving known processes and entities rather than in an explanation which claims completeness at the cost of invoking ad-hoc, disconnected, and mysterious entities and processes (see 2, 3, 4 above).

    10. Science seeks explanations for all phenomena in its purview; it always asks what determines the characteristics of any phenomenon that figures in its explanations: how did that originate, what explains that?

    Now notice that this description says nothing about methodological naturalism or nature at all. I think this is a stronger definition of science to use against the ID’ers.

    I think Steve’s assertion that science requires methodological naturalism is weak, and could be used as fodder by the Discovery Institute.

  59. Roberton 25 Oct 2008 at 6:17 pm

    daedalus2uon wrote:

    “Robert, Randi’s challenge doesn’t presuppose a supernatural explanation, and a successful payout wouldn’t prove a supernatural event.”

    I agree completely. Nor does it presuppose a natural explanation.

    I have obviously not made myself understood here in the least. Everyone thinks I hold a position that I don’t.

  60. Brian Englishon 25 Oct 2008 at 6:19 pm

    Based on that experience, most scientist just now assume that we will only find natural causes, so they only look for natural causes. This pragmatic approach is called “methodological naturalism”.

    So scientists who do science assume MN for pragmatic reasons. How does this conflict with Steve’s assertion that science requires methodological naturalism

    Perhaps you are suggesting that science could use other methodologies to gain knowledge? This may be possible, but until other reliable, testable, and probably falsifiable methods of knowledge gaining that don’t assume a naturalistic explanation come along, science requires application of MN.

  61. Fifion 25 Oct 2008 at 6:20 pm

    Robert – So what is a “supernaturalist”? I’m kind of confused as to how you can assert anything about supernaturalism if you don’t even know what it is and apparently even the people who you say are “supernaturalists” don’t have a cohesive concept? (No insult intended obviously since you’ve just said you don’t know what “supernaturalism” is even though you seem to know “supernaturalists”! What distinguishes a supernaturalist from anyone else? How do you know they’re a supernaturalist?)

  62. Roberton 25 Oct 2008 at 6:21 pm

    Brian, we are just using different meanings for the phrase “methodological naturalism”. You are using it one way, and I am using it another, that’s all.

  63. Fifion 25 Oct 2008 at 6:25 pm

    Robert – Personally I’m just trying to figure out what you mean so I’m not even sure what you’re proposing here or how you think a hand up is being given to the Discovery Institute.

  64. Roberton 25 Oct 2008 at 6:25 pm

    Fifi,

    A supernaturalist is simply someone who claims the existence of supernatural beings or a supernatural realm.

    The burden is on them to say what that could possibly mean, it is not on me.

  65. Roberton 25 Oct 2008 at 6:28 pm

    Fifi,

    For more on my view, go here:

    http://www.naturalism.org/science.htm

    In my opinion, the approach advocated there is much more robust than Steve’s approach.

  66. Fifion 25 Oct 2008 at 6:32 pm

    Robert – Um, you’re the one who’s been using the term “supernaturalism” here and seem to be saying it should be given some validity by science – it seems to me that the burden is on you to explain!

  67. Roberton 25 Oct 2008 at 6:36 pm

    “Robert – Um, you’re the one who’s been using the term “supernaturalism” here and seem to be saying it should be given some validity by science”

    Are you insane?

    Have you read anything I wrote?

    I said I thought supernaturalism was idiotic.

    How does calling it idiotic give it validity?

  68. sonicon 25 Oct 2008 at 6:54 pm

    Steven, this argument need sharpening. Here are a few areas of difficulty–

    Is materialism dead?
    According to this argument
    “In fact, the term materialism as broadly defined does not have much applicability today. ”
    So we could say that materialism is just an inapplicable concept?

    “In this way materialism is really just a manifestation of naturalism – the philosophy that says that nature (in all of its aspects) is all that there is…”

    So we shift the discussion from ‘materialism’ to ‘naturalism’ and we define ‘naturalism’ with the tautology
    “nature is all there is.”

    We can go further-
    “Any viable modern definition of materialism, however, must also include energy, forces, space-time – and anything else discovered by science to exist in nature”

    So if science discovered ESP, then ESP would be part of materialism. If science discovered that consciousness is separable from the body, then this would be part of materialism?

    The earlier definition
    “With all this discussion of materialism I guess I should define it. Put simply, it is the philosophical position that all physical effects have physical causes. There are no non-physical or non-material causes of physical effects.”

    With the discovery of radiation and the notion of the ‘quantum leap’ and the notion of ‘randomness’ applied to the actual outcome of actual scientific experiments, we can state catagorically that there are no phyiscal causes for all physical effects.
    So this form of materialism has been demonstrated to be false. So now we are going to change the meaning of the word because, why? It doesn’t work to explain the universe we live in, why keep it? Sentimental reasons?

    I often read about how the ‘god in the gaps’ people keep moving the goalposts. You have moved the goalposts to include anything that ‘science’ comes up with.

    This argument needs tightening.

  69. Meanwhile… « For Knowledge!on 26 Oct 2008 at 4:16 am

    [...] is in the works (short version: it sucks), but until that’s finished I direct you towards this fascinating essay about the Discovery Institute’s attack on [...]

  70. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 5:06 am

    Sonic,

    None of the discoveries you mentioned constitute evidence against materialism. What they suggest is that some elements or properties of events may not be caused. They do not suggest that there are non-physical causes. Remember, the point here is that all physical effects have physical causes. The terms “effects” and “causes” are crucial. Materialism does not require the postulate that all events or properties have causes.

    Robert,

    Since you are making reference to supernaturalism in formulating your argument against the claim that methodological naturalism is a necessary aspect of science, then the onus is on you to present some understanding of what the term “supernaturalism” entails.

    The term is traditionally meant to designate some realm or entity which lies beyond nature, and yet in relation to which nature is subservient. This notion is inherently unscientific, because “nature” is defined as whatever science discovers it to be. If it is supernatural, then it cannot be discovered scientifically. This is a matter of definitions, and it is why science entails methodological materialism (or methodological naturalism, if you prefer).

  71. CKavaon 26 Oct 2008 at 5:18 am

    “we can state catagorically that there are no phyiscal causes for all physical effects.”

    Huh? Are you like pec equating physical to something solid you can touch?

  72. Fifion 26 Oct 2008 at 6:44 am

    Robert – I’m still unclear on how you think Dr Novella is giving a hand up to the Discovery Institute by not allowing concesions for “supernaturalism” (whatever that is!). I’m still unclear as to what you were getting at with your exorcism/schizophrenia story since it simply makes no logical sense (and seems rather provocative or naive to bring up). As I said before, I’m a lay person when it comes to philosophy so it’s quite possible that’s contributing to me not understanding what you’re getting at here. Whatever the cause of the poor communication, I’ve found some of what you’ve written so far to be unclear, which is why I’ve been asking questions. I dont’ know, perhaps you’re having a high level philosophical argument with Dr Novella and quibbling over some point that’s way over my head. It’s quite possible. That said, what Brian English has been talking about has been very clear to me and so was Dr Novella’s blog, it’s just your objections and what you’re proposing as a replacement that I’m finding confusing and unclear.

  73. Fifion 26 Oct 2008 at 7:01 am

    “# Roberton 25 Oct 2008 at 4:47 pm
    The Discovery Institute with their creationist agenda has always charged that scientists automatically rule out supernaturalism. Steve gives them fuel for his argument by saying “science requires methodological naturalism”.
    I would never give them such fuel.”

    See, I don’t understand what fuel you think he’s giving them and what you’re calling for him to do – particularly since you assert that “scientists automatically rule out supernaturalism” (not true, some don’t and they probably work for the DI). Are you proposing you have a better argument against “supernaturalism” than Dr Novella that rules it out somehow? Or that supernaturalism shouldn’t be ruled out? It appears I’m not the only person here who’s having difficulty understanding what you’re getting at!

  74. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 11:57 am

    Fifi,

    I cannot believe you quote mined me like that. I said The Discovery Institute always says that scientists automatically rule out supernaturalism. I did not assert that! Good grief.

    This is not that complicated. There are many articles about this in that link I gave above. I think that science can be done without only looking for “natural” causes.

    Jason Streitfeld,

    as you defined “supernatural”, then of course science cannot discover it. However, as I said above, if there is something “supernatural”, like a God, that interacts in this universe in any way, then that supernatural thing is in principle discoverable by science.

    Most theists would call God “supernatural”, and also they would say that this God interacts with this world somehow. If their claims are true, then God is in principle discoverable by science.

    Now, I am not defending the theistic definition of “supernatural”, but rather just using the word as most supernaturalists do, even though it is an incoherent use.

    Likewise, I think most people would call an exorcism a supernatural event, if in fact a demon is being cast out. Fine, I say. Let’s test it. Put up or shut up, I want to say to the exorcists.

    Fifi,

    I do not want to bogart this forum. Read the naturalism.org link that I gave. Look at the definition of science that I provided. I am simply arguing for a more robust definition of science than Steve is using. I think his definition is flawed and weak.

  75. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 12:12 pm

    http://www.naturalism.org/science.htm

    That is the link I am talking about.

    Several papers there argue for the position that I am defending and against the stance Steve is taking.

  76. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 12:21 pm

    Robert,

    Yes, most theists would say God is “supernatural.” (The only exception to this, I think, would be pantheists, but they are perhaps more accurately thought of as atheists.) That means that nothing you could scientifically discover and call “God” would fit their criteria.

    Your position is that the term “supernatural” may one day be applicable to the object of a scientific discovery, because we might scientifically discover something that correlates with the object of religious (or spiritual) belief. My position–and I think the position of others here–is that applying the term “supernatural” to any such discovery is improper, because of the way the term “supernatural” is defined. If something has been discovered scientifically, then it is not supernatural, by definition.

    Consider, also, that if any so-called “supernatural” phenomenon was discovered scientifically, it would have been discovered using the same process that scientistists always use, which we call “methodological naturalism.”

    I cannot see how you will be able to provide an example or an argument for how science could abandon methodological naturalism without giving up its intellectual integrity, unless you wish to corrupt the definitions of the terms.

  77. Fifion 26 Oct 2008 at 12:26 pm

    Robert – What’s the issue with showing you what you said that I find confusing so you can clarify? You’ve yet to show how you’re proposing a more robust definition of science (to me at least, if it makes you feel better you can call me names again) and certainly your proposed exorcism/religion vs medicine experiment was severely lacking in logic even to this philosophy neophyte (not to mention outside the bounds of medical ethics). You berate Dr Novella for dismissing “supernaturalism” and then want to tell exorcists “Put up or shut up” – that hardly seems much different than Dr Novella dismissing “supernaturalism” with a put up or shut up kinda attitude himself. At this pont – and after the name calling for asking you to clarify and that seriously illogical exorcism vs medicine proposal – I’m not that enticed to give your proposed definition of science much time or consideration.

  78. Fifion 26 Oct 2008 at 12:31 pm

    Jason – Thank you for being so clear in what you’re saying since it helps me to clarify why what’s being said doesn’t make sense to me!

  79. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 12:32 pm

    Robert,

    About the link to naturalism.org . . .

    I don’t see why much importance should be placed on monism. Monistic naturalism and methodological naturalism are not the same thing. Supernaturalism and ontological dualism are not the same thing, either. Supernaturalism is only one form of ontological dualism.

    Science need not be absolutely monistic: it may be that scientists discover a plurality of fundamental constituents and forces in the universe. As far as we know, there need not be only one underlying substance, or only one underlying force, which accounts for all that we experience. The universe may be full of fundamentally unique elements and forces.

    The problem with supernaturalism is not that it implies a duality, a fundamental difference, between two types of entities. Rather, the problem is that it postulates such a duality while defining one of the sets of entities out of observable existence. That is unscientific . . . anti-scientific, even.

  80. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 12:33 pm

    Jason,

    If a theistic God has any effect in this universe, then that God is in principle discoverable by science.

    Do you disagree?

  81. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 12:37 pm

    “The problem with supernaturalism is not that it implies a duality, a fundamental difference, between two types of entities. Rather, the problem is that it postulates such a duality while defining one of the sets of entities out of observable existence. That is unscientific . . . anti-scientific, even.”

    I agree with this completely, IF that is in fact how supernaturalists define supernatural. In my experience, that is not how they use the word.

  82. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 12:47 pm

    Robert,

    “If a theistic God has any effect in this universe, then that God is in principle discoverable by science.

    Do you disagree?”

    No, I agree.

    I think our only disagreement here (and perhaps your only disagreement with anyone here) is based on definitions.

    I think the definition of supernatural I indicated is not only the traditional one, but also the most common one in usage today. If you can point to some other usage–one which does not define a realm or set of entities out of scientifically observable existence–then please share it with us.

    If “supernatural” were merely defined to indicate any entity which has been the object of religious belief, then any scientific discovery which explained a religious belief could be considered a “supernatural” discovery. Considering how many things have been the object of religious worship throughout history, we would have to regard a substantial part of nature as “supernatural” to properly respect those lost traditions.

    I wouldn’t propose regarding the sun as a god, simply because it was once thought to have divine attributes.

  83. Fifion 26 Oct 2008 at 12:51 pm

    Well this circular…now we can ask “how DO supernaturalists define supernatural?” (as I did when I asked you what “supernaturalism” is!) and you can say “ask them!” even though you’re now saying that you know how they don’t use the word (which implies you have experience with how they DO use the word and therefore CAN explain what, within the scope of your experience, “supernaturalists” means by “supernatural”).

  84. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 12:53 pm

    Jason,

    I don’t know if you read all of what I wrote above. I have been saying all along this is about definitions. Steve wants to define science one way, while I prefer the definition as outlined at naturalism.org. That’s all there is to it.

    Now, most Christians would call God “supernatural”, yet they also claim that God interacts with the world. I think that that makes no sense, and I think you would agree. Nevertheless, that is what they mean by supernatural. Go figure.

  85. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 1:03 pm

    Robert,

    Yeah, I think most, perhaps all, religious believers choose to overlook the logical inconsistency in the idea of an unobservable entity which influences the observable universe.

    Too answer your implied question, I have read all of your posts. But I don’t see a problem with how anyone here is defining “science.”

    The problem, I think, is just a confusion pertaining to the terms “natural” and “supernatural.” The former is a blanket term referring to everything that can be scientifically observed–everything which has a measurable effect in the universe.

    The term “supernatural” is defined so as to safeguard a set of concepts from rational investigation. It regards some events as having causes which can never be measured or discovered, and so which cannot be embraced or discarded with any definable standards of reason or evidence.

    But, again, if you are aware of a different usage of “supernatural,” I’d like to know.

  86. Fifion 26 Oct 2008 at 1:04 pm

    I think we all agree that most people’s conceptions of god make no sense when looked at logically – that’s why a belief in god(s) is considered faith (even if someone considers their god to be fact). It’s also why a logical argument – no matter how well crafted – is essentially useless against faith. Faith is about believing something based on no evidence or DESPITE the evidence – it really is pretty much the polar opposite of what science proposes.

  87. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 1:04 pm

    Fifi,

    I have called supernaturalism idiotic. I have said that supernaturalists, in my opinion, have not provided a coherent definition of the word “supernatural”.

    Nevertheless, the word is out there and in use.

    So, we use the word, with the full understanding that supernaturalists don’t know that they don’t know what they are talking about.

    Meanwhile, me and you and Jason DO KNOW that they don’t know what they are talking about.

  88. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 1:09 pm

    Fifi,

    I’m glad if I’ve helped a little. I strive for clarity.

  89. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 1:10 pm

    “Yeah, I think most, perhaps all, religious believers choose to overlook the logical inconsistency in the idea of an unobservable entity which influences the observable universe.”

    This is my point. And we can use science to drive the point home.

    You point out that supernaturalists use “supernatural” in an inconsistent way. I agree. So we agree.

    All I can say is that I prefer the definition of science that I outlined above. It is slightly different from Steve’s. That is all there is to it.

  90. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 1:14 pm

    Can you pinpoint the difference between your definition of “science” and Steve’s?

  91. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 1:17 pm

    “Can you pinpoint the difference between your definition of “science” and Steve’s?”

    Mine makes no mention of “methodological naturalism”.

  92. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Okay, but in mentioning methodological naturalism, I don’t think Steve was referring to anything other than the definition of science you embrace.

    Is it just that you don’t like the phrase, and don’t think it should be used to refer to science? Or is it that you think it refers to something else, something which is not quite science as you know it?

    In my opinion, the term “naturalism” is as unnecessary as the term “atheism.” But both are useful for establishing clear positions of disagreement with theism and supernaturalism.

    I think, in using the phrase “methodological naturalism,” we just mean to emphasize the fact that science is incompatible supernaturalism. Perhaps it is unnecessary, but that is more of a political issue, and does not seem to affect how we understand science.

  93. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 1:31 pm

    “Is it just that you don’t like the phrase, and don’t think it should be used to refer to science?”

    Using that phrase allows the Discovery Institute to claim that scientists automatically reject notions such as intelligent design. They claim “That’s not fair!”

    I’m arguing that the rejection is not automatic, but rather we apply the methods of science as I have outlined, see that ID is clearly not science, and reject it.

  94. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 1:32 pm

    I should mention at this point that I do have one issue with something Steve wrote in relation to methodological naturalism.

    He indicated a distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism, and claimed agnosticism towards the latter.

    In my view, there is no tangible difference between philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism. The reason is that, if you understand why methodological naturalism is a necessary part of any rational process of discovery, then you must understand why naturalism is the only rational philosophical position. I cannot imagine a coherent view of naturalism which regarded it as methodologically necessary, but philosophically unnecessary.

  95. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 1:35 pm

    I don’t see how using the phrase “methodological naturalism” allows the Discovery Institute to ignore the facts here.

  96. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 1:36 pm

    Jason,

    My point is fully fleshed out in this article:

    Why Intelligent Design Isn’t Science – Contrary to the claims of some proponents of intelligent design (ID), science does not presume naturalism. So science doesn’t reject ID because ID is supernatural. Nevertheless, science does reject ID because the ID hypothesis exemplifies none of the characteristics of legitimate scientific explanation.

    http://www.naturalism.org/science.htm#whyintelligent

  97. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 1:40 pm

    “In my view, there is no tangible difference between philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism.”

    YES!

    And what has happened is that some guys at the Discover Institute have pointed that out, and used it as a hammer.

    I don’t want to give them that hammer. Steve does.

  98. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Contrary to what that article says, it is quite clear to me that science does presuppose naturalism.

    The first point is that “science seeks the simplest and most parsimonious peer-reviewed explanations, based on empirical, intersubjective evidence.”

    Another of the points is that: “Entities accepted by science are either directly observed or indirectly inferred via experiment or theory, where such inference predicts specific characteristics of the entity that can be tested for in later experiments or that bear on other predictions.”

    The next point on the list says that science “seeks explanations which . . . generate testable predictions.”

    Taken together, these points describe methodological naturalism.

    There is no difference between what you are describing and what people mean when they talk about methodological naturalism. So I have no idea why the author claims that science does not presuppose naturalism.

    Perhaps the author was thinking of philosophical naturalism, and not methodological naturalism. (Though, as I just noted, I think the one implies the other.)

  99. [...] gone from intellectual (and sometimes literal) rags to riches. In an excellent post, Neurologica parses the creationist argument, and shows its serious failings and its dangerous ramifications for scientific thought in the new [...]

  100. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 2:26 pm

    Jason, you wrote:

    “There is no difference between what you are describing and what people mean when they talk about methodological naturalism.”

    Perhaps so, although I don’t know how you could possibly know what all people mean when they use the phrase “methodological naturalism”.

    The fact of the matter is that using the term “naturalism”, in any form, in a definition of science has allowed folks at the Discovery Institute to argue that that definition is inherently atheistic and constitutes a violation of the first amendment. They argue that if that’s what science is, then the US Government is supporting an atheistic worldview over a theistic worldview.

    By removing any reference to “naturalism”, my definition hamstrings the Discovery Institute. It’s a word game. It’s politics. It’s stupid. But it’s the world we live in.

  101. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 2:36 pm

    Jason,

    Here is an article where one of the Discovery Institute fellows makes the First Amendment argument. Please note: I do not endorse this viewpoint. Rather, I’m offering it as an example of why “naturalism” should be avoided in any definition of science.

    http://www.discovery.org/a/1990

  102. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 2:41 pm

    I don’t think bending over backwards to please the Discovery Institute’s preferred linguistic inanity will help the cause of intellectual integrity.

    To support my view, here’s another quote from the link you provided:

    “Now, Calvert might take issue with this empirical claim about what science is and what scientists do, and point to various declarations by scientists that they are indeed materialists or “methodological naturalists.”2 But if they are such, it’s only in the benign sense mentioned above, that scientists will first look for explanatory resources within existing science, which is perforce about nature as we currently understand it. This, to repeat, is not to decide in advance what counts as natural according to some philosophical or ideological criterion, but to proceed on the basis of the relatively secure knowledge already in hand about what we call the natural world. ”

    It appears to me that the Discovery Institute has an intellectually dishonest notion of “methodological naturalism,” and they are using it to poison the well of legitimate science. I don’t think trying to play by their rules will work, because their rules are geared towards undermining rational discourse.

    So I wouldn’t begrudge Steve, or anyone else, for using the phrase “methodological naturalism.” The problem here is with the fellows at the Discovery Institute and others whose abuse of the language needs be confronted head on.

  103. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 2:48 pm

    This is Gould’s view called NOMA vs. Dawkins’ view that NOMA is goofy. I agree with Dawkins; Steve seems to line up with Gould.

  104. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 2:53 pm

    I’m just now reading the latest link you posted. Before I offer any new thoughts, let me direct you to something related which I recently posted in response to another of Steve’s blog posts:

    http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=376#more-376

    (At the moment, mine is the second-to-last post.)

  105. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Okay, I finished reading that link, and it rather firmly secured my belief that the best strategy against the Discovery Institute is to meet them head on with philosophical arguments demonstrating the undeniable necessity of naturalism.

    I do agree with the Discovery Institute in one respect: the NCSE guide made a big mistake when it explicitly supported NOMA. NOMA is untenable, both philosophically and politically. Public school children’s religious beliefs should not be protected from the rational scrutiny of science educators.

    But I don’t think erasing all mention of the word “naturalism” is going to help anybody here. You can stop using the word, but the Discovery Institute will still make the exact same arguments and use the exact same tactics to press their political agenda.

    So I say let’s make the philosophical case and not be afraid to use the established terminology.

  106. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 3:07 pm

    Jason,

    Concerning that comment in another thread, I agree with you in principle. I’m not sure what you propose is practical, however. Regardless, I’m not sure how that relates.

    Also, what you call “bending over backwards” to appease the Discovery Institute I call giving them rope that they will hang themselves with.

  107. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 3:09 pm

    Mmm . . . in my reading of Steve, he endorses NOMA. What do you think? I think I have heard him endorse it on the podcast, but I’m not sure about that.

  108. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 3:12 pm

    Jason,

    I think we agree philosophically, but just disagree strategically.

  109. Fifion 26 Oct 2008 at 3:12 pm

    Robert – The folks at Discovery Institute will continue to make that claim about science no matter what terminology is used or how logical and valid an argument is. They don’t actually care about intellectual discourse or debate (they’re essentially anti-intellectual), they care about giving the appearance of intellectual discourse and debate so they can frame religious beliefs as being simply disputed science and no faith based. Their aim is to get religion into the classroom, not convince anyone that God does or doesn’t exist based upon evidence. It’s quite telling that Jonathon Wells is a Moonie since the “Wedge” document really proposes exactly the same strategies used by the Moonies and Scientologists (Jonathan Wells is a Moonie and a scientist, the Moonies have a very big presence in Washington since their agenda is political and they’re in bed with the Fundamentalists).

    Expecting some kind of intellectual honesty or coherance from the likes of the Discovery Institute – or to be able to debate them using reason – is, well, kind of silly since they don’t stick to the rules of that game….they’re not even playing the game, just pretending to. Their game is quite different, it’s a PR game and has to do with surface not content and involves all kinds of clever but unethical strategies.

  110. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 3:23 pm

    Fifi,

    I do not expect intellectual honesty or coherence from the Discovery Institute folks. I am puzzled that you could possibly get that impression from anything I have written.

    I agree that this is a PR game. I think my definition of science provides a better PR strategy than Steve’s.

  111. Fifion 26 Oct 2008 at 3:28 pm

    May I just add, that switching up wording is actually playing into their hands (as is in-fighting about details of philosophy). One of the great strengths of organizations like the DI is that they bring together people who believe slightly different things but have the same agenda (a theocracy where they rule and get richer, and a general debasement of what the White House scoffed at as “reality based thinking”). The Moonies, the Scientologists, Fundamentalists and anyone else that finds science and reality-based thinking a threat to their agenda work together behind the scenes – and then generally present themselves as a pseudoscientific or mainstream christian organization (and will even insult their own beliefs to distance themselves from them for PR purposes – there’s a strangely hilarious and definitely weird pro CS Lewis and anti-Dawkins satire up on the DI site, as well as parodying the “wedge” document to make it sound like people who refer to it are conspiracy theorists, also a common Scientology/cult ploy).

  112. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 3:38 pm

    Robert,

    My strategic approach to this issue is a little controversial, I think. I came out in favor of the recent Louisiana legislation, which allows teachers to supplement the science coursebook with outside materials that foster critical thinking. The Discovery Institute picked up my article and posted it on their Website, saying that an atheist supported their initiatives. (Unsurprisingly, they didn’t pick up a related article I wrote two days later.)

    Of course I do not support their initiatives. But I do agree with their opinion of NOMA. I think NOMA is the biggest enemy here, because it gives rational scientists and educators an excuse to avoid confrontation.

    Maybe I just have more confidnce in the strength of my philosophical position. But I cannot support a passive approach and just hope that the Discovery Institute hangs itself with its fallacies and deception.

    And I don’t see the point in pretending like religious or pseudoscientific ideas have no place in a science classroom. I think sticking to that impossible principle is what really plays into the Discovery Institute’s hands.

    As for Steve’s view of NOMA, I cannot say. I haven’t read (or heard) enough of his views on the subject. But I get the impression he is skeptical of NOMA, but not sure enough of his philosophical ground to completely argue against it.

  113. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 3:57 pm

    Jason,

    Have you ever been to Louisiana? I live in the real world, not in an ideal world populated by clear thinking public school teachers who know anything about critical thinking.

    Anyway, this is my last comment on the matter and it echos my first comment.

    This is my opinion:

    By asserting that “science requires methodological naturalism”, Steve bolsters the position of the Discover Institute. I do not want to bolster the Discovery Institute. I want to undermine it. The best way to do that is to use the definition of science that I have provided and demand that the Discovery Institute put up or shut up.

    I realize many will disagree, and that is fine. We simply disagree on the best strategy.

    I admire Steve Novella. I disagree with him on a minor definitional issue, for strategic reasons only. That is all.

  114. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Yeah, I’ve been to Louisiana a couple of times. I lived in Texas for six years, so I was just down the road.

    Anyway, thanks for the brief discussion. Sorry we didn’t come to an agreement on strategy here. Again, I have no qualms with your definition of science, and I agree with your “put up or shut up” attitude. But I don’t think that’s enough.

    The problem I see is this: If you take away the words “naturalism” and “materialism,” then our opponents will put all of their energy into attacking scientism.

    Their argument is that the Establishment Clause is meant to prevent the government from priveleging one -ism over another. And they view science as just another -ism, whether you call it “naturalism” or not.

    This is where the philosophical argument must be made. The philosophical foundation of science is solid, and it is currently being spit on by those who support Intelligent Design and similar faith-based initiatives. Until the philosophical issues are emphasized and clarified in the public and political arenas, I don’t think this problem will go away.

  115. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 4:24 pm

    One more thing, about real-vs.-ideal Louisianas.

    I recall a recent study which indicated that most science teachers do not teach evolution as it ought to be taught.

    I have no illusions about the state of science education in America, and I do not pretend that educators in Louisiana, or anywhere else, are all competent enough to get the job done on their own.

    That is why we need textbooks which make these issues as clear and simple as possible for teachers and students. Other expenditures would also be helpful, like a mandatory course on evolutionary theory for all biology teachers.

  116. Fifion 26 Oct 2008 at 4:39 pm

    I may be a rank amateur and neophyte when it comes to the ins and outs of philosophy, however I do have rather extensive experience in communications and crafting PR.

    I think there’s a fundamental problem in letting ID be part of the curriculum for a number of reasons (I don’t mean an individual teacher discussing something a student brings up in class) and all hell will break loose if it is. (There’s no way a science curriculum that debunks ID will be allowed in schools in the US, so just forget that from the get go.) I think it’s much constructive to make sure REAL science is being taught in classrooms (that already seems to be an issue in the US) or to start offering free after-school science programs (particularly for kids in disadvantaged areas who are even less likely to get a decent science education). Science isn’t religion, it’s not about faith. ID isn’t about science, it is about faith. It’s not science’s job to debunk religion and people have a right to their faith (whether they believe in xenu or Christ). The fact that people are even talking about including in the curriculum – even if it’s to debunk it – means that the DI has successfully gotten their enemies to work within their contextualization of ID as being science and belonging in the science classroom.

    So far the DI is managing to frame this as a clash of ideologies or philosophies – it’s why they emphasize this and not the actual science. One of the things about messaging is knowing who you’re addressing so you can tailor the message to them – so what you’re discussing may be very important in academia and amidst philosophers but is much less relevant to your average person. The reality is that most of the general public who have no dog in this fight aren’t anti-science – that’s why the DI and con artists who exist within CAM resort to pseudoscience and attemp to confuse people. Science would be best served by simplifying what is being said so that it’s easily understandable to lay people (such as myself who initially though I was being accused of being a gun wielding greed monkey when some IDer called me a dualist materialist). I don’t mean dumbing down, merely simplifying and being aware of colloquial usage and meaning.

    The reality is that if the space probe got to the end of the galaxy and found Jesus, Ramtha, Hello Kitty and Buddha sitting on a cloud throwing down thunderbolts and fluffy kittens – or if ESP was actually proven to exist in an experimental setting – science would have to acknowledge their existence EVEN if it didn’t yet understand the mechanisms of how they work. (Just like science had to admit that homosexuality is natural once it was proven, though in that case bias obviously did play into faulty observation.) Science doesn’t say things don’t exist because we don’t understand how they work or that they didn’t exist before science “discovered” them (discovery isn’t creation – though it’s easy to see why the ID/creationist would be confused). Let’s face it, religion has been struggling with believability forever, that’s why miracles were invented to provide visible “evidence” of god ’cause seeing is believing. (It’s worth noting that relics and miracles were also publicity and fundraising strategies for churches intended to bring pilgrims and their cash through that church’s doors.) That religion can no longer rely upon miracles and needs to try to sell itself as science indicates just how desperate they are to maintain a toehold in the mainstream and get into institutions.

  117. sonicon 26 Oct 2008 at 4:54 pm

    Jason Streitfeld:

    ‘None of the discoveries you mentioned constitute evidence against materialism.’

    I mentioned radioactive decay. Historically this is seen as evidence and in fact perhaps a death-blow against materialism.

    I realize that we can re-define materialism. We can define it to mean that ESP is a materialistic event. (This is a proposal that Steven seems to be making)– By the way, “Naturalism” would include that ESP is part of nature. In fact naturalism can accommodate dualism. (At least the version espoused on the website by that name.)

    “What they suggest is that some elements or properties of events may not be caused. They do not suggest that there are non-physical causes.”

    Again I agree- we have the notion that things are not caused. That is to say there is no physical, mechanical explanation for all the phenomena of this universe.

    Again, we can define materialism to accommodate this, by why?
    We have words like ‘physicalism’, or ‘naturalism’ or other words.

    The way the article is written we should have no problem with this statement, “I am a materialist. That is why I believe in an omnipetent, uncaused God that created this universe.”

    Is that way of defining ‘materialism’ clarifying?

    Steven’s real point is that he believes that someday the mind will be explained in terms of brain action. There is no reason to muddy the waters by redefining ‘materialism’ in such a way that it becomes essentially meaningless.

  118. Fifion 26 Oct 2008 at 5:25 pm

    My only objection to the use of “Materialism” is that it’s got a negative implication in colloquial usage as “materialism” and gets conflated with this negative meaning (and used to reinforce certain memes already circulating). This is already being exploited by at least the footsoldiers of ID. These people really are the epitomy of Orwell’s dystopic vision (though Orwell did base 1984 on what he saw going on around him and speaks just as much about the time it was written).

    Ultimately, from my perspective, it’s the “ism” that’s the issue and science needs to clearly contextualize itself as a methodology not a belief system. This doesn’t mean that scientists and science institutions doesn’t get influenced by “isms” of various kinds – just as all organized human endeavors do – it just means that it’s important to focus on the methodology that sets science apart not make it about competing “isms”. Yes, scientists are just people and they don’t know everything and have personal biases just like everyone else and that’s EXACTLY why the scientific method is so special, worthwhile and precious. Hmmm, maybe I’ll start doing public seminars selling people the “secret” to empower their reality….featuring, of course, the scientific method! ;-)

  119. sonicon 26 Oct 2008 at 5:36 pm

    Robert,

    I agree that it is a matter of definition.

    Here is an excerpt from a physics paper I recently read-

    arXiv:gr-qc/0603110v1 28 Mar 2006

    “The application of quantum theory to cosmology presents a unique problem with not only mathematical but also many conceptual and philosophical ramifications. Since by definition there is only one universe which contains everything accessible, there is no place for an outside observer separate from the quantum system. This eliminates the most straightforward interpretations of quantum mechanics…”

    So we can’t use the most straightfoward interpretation of our most tested, validated, proved to be correct science, because of “by definition”

    And we complain about the philosophical bias of the creationists, but disallow our own scientists from using our best science due to philosophical considerations.

    And I believe it has a lot to do with what we call ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’.
    What a bunch of hooie.

  120. Jason Streitfeldon 26 Oct 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Fifi,

    If I understand you correctly, you are saying that it is hard enough teaching straight science, so why complicate matters by introducing pseudoscience?

    Part of our disagreement here is probably related to our interpretation of why and how America’s science education is failing. Here is a link to that recent study I mentioned earlier.

    My view is mostly in line with the NSES, which argues that science education must promote critical thinking and be taught in a way that is relevant to society and humanity. I only differ with the NSES recommendations when it comes to their allegiance to NOMA, because I view that as an untenable position.

    I don’t think you can teach science without teaching what it means and why it matters. You cannot teach biology without teaching evolution, and you cannot teach evolution without teaching about natural selection. In addition, you cannot teach natural selection without contrasting it with artificial selection. This means the notion of a “designer” is relevant.

    Who can ignore the social and historical relevance of these ideas, and their impact on religious belief? Why should that be ignored in the classroom, when social relevance is acknowledged to be of fundamental importance?

    More broadly, I think we have to wonder about our general interpretation of the First Ammendment. At what point did the Consitution become about protecting religious beliefs from scientific scrutiny?

    Religion is being studied within a range of scientific disciplines. What we are seeing from the likes of the Discovery Institute is the result of fear and panic, because they see their institutions being picked apart by rational analysis. So they want to attack science itself.

    The irony is that the only way they can attack science is by first attacking NOMA, which is supposed to be there to protect them.

    I want to attack NOMA, too. Firstly, because it is philosophically unjustifiable. Secondly, and more importantly, because religious belief is too dangerous, too pervasive, and too powerful to be humored by the public school system.

    Sonic,

    “I mentioned radioactive decay. Historically this is seen as evidence and in fact perhaps a death-blow against materialism.”

    I think you’ve got that wrong. Brownian motion is often raised as an example of a non-deterministic process. But materialism and determinism are two separate things.

    There is no unseemly redefining of “materialism” here, no unwarranted moving of goal posts.

  121. Fifion 26 Oct 2008 at 6:21 pm

    Jason – It just seems to me that you can teach science and evolution without bringing religion into it as part of the curriculum (I’m not saying don’t talk about it if it’s brought up in a discussion, just that ID shouldn’t be on the curriculum). I know for instance that Catholic girls schools have done this forever and they’re religious schools so I’m not sure why this would be an issue in a secular school (though maybe this is no longer the case in the US Catholic schools).

    That said, I totally agree that connecting science to everyday life – what I’d maybe call “science in action” – is important. We all learn more deeply when something impacts us personally and we experience it. I’m not sure how bringing ID into the classroom would do that really since I don’t think most kids give a rat’s ass about that kind of thing (though it may be very different in the US where apparently fundamentalist religion reigns – though I supsect that there are actually less fundamentalists than the fundamentalists like to say there are to fluff up their political clout). The reality is that there’s no real controversy in science regarding evolution, it really is a tempest in a teapot orbiting the moon that’s been manufactured by the ID movement out of pure huffery and puffery. I think teaching the methodology of science and why it’s different than subjective observation, would actually be enough to teach the basics of critical thinking (though I don’t think critical thinking is unique to science so getting the English and art teachers online might not be a bad idea and would be more likely to reach kids who avoid science).

    Of course, having grown up godless in a science/medicine family my experience was all about getting scientific explanations for the world around me so perhaps I’m biased towards the idea that including religion is superfluous and muddying the waters.

    It occurs to me that perhaps science needs to reframe this conversation from being right or wrong for a number of reasons. The reality is that science does get it wrong at times but that science is self correcting when a theory is proven to be incorrect – often as a result of the invention of better tools of observation (MRI being a biggie). Science isn’t about certainty, it’s about exploration and a collective body of ever evolving knowledge. It might be useful to frame science as that – humanity’s collective body of knowledge that we all have access to if we choose (either directly or via experts). People have a very deep sense of attachment and ownership towards their religion, it’s part of their self identity so they feel as if they’re being personally attacked or told they’re stupid for their faith. If people had the same sense of ownership and investment in real science, they’d also identify with science and scientists more.

    I take no issue with people having faith, I take issue with them pretending their faith is fact and science. Really, the cleverest bit of messaging out there at the moment are the bus ads in the UK paid for by atheists.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/oct/23/atheist-bus-campaign-ariane-sherine

  122. JimVon 26 Oct 2008 at 7:14 pm

    Robert, if it is any small consolation, I understood what you were saying from your first comment, and agree with it. There is no need to rule out magic, dualism, the power of prayers to Vishnu, or the ability of dowsers to find buried items with a forked stick a priori. The scientific method only requires that such claims be confirmed by evidence from well-constructed, controlled experiments.

    All that we have to rule out as part of science are the sort of miracles that only happen when they can’t be measured or confirmed, or, in general, claims that can’t be tested.

  123. sonicon 26 Oct 2008 at 7:17 pm

    Jason-
    Let’s not get too carried away with this side topic.
    But please checkout the following-

    “Philosophical Materialism” by Richard Vitzthum
    (I believe you will find he is considered authoritative)

    “The tendency is clear in the second masterpiece of materialist literature, Baron Paul d’Holbach’s anonymously published “La Systeme de la Nature”…, which appeared in France in 1770…
    D’Holbach bases his mechanical determinism on Newtonian physics…”

    Now I understand that there are many versions (reductionist, eliminative, property dualists, functionalists…) of materialism. But the masterworks of materialism up to the discovery of radioactive decay all assumed a mechanical determinism underneath all reality. The discovery of radioactive decay (which came as a huge surprise—ie. “nothing could be like this”) and the notion of non-causality (which was further championed by the discoveries of QM) have been a problem for the philosophy since.

    The blog entry suggests that ‘materialism’ means
    “Any viable modern definition of materialism, however, must also include energy, forces, space-time – and anything else discovered by science to exist in nature.”

    But that says that materialism includes a dualistic nature to reality (If that’s what science finds).

    But that is a change from the historical meaning to such a degree that I would suggest that a different term would be more appropriate.
    I am essentially agreeing with Steven’s statement,
    “In fact, the term materialism as broadly defined does not have much applicability today.”

    I am asking why continue to use it then?

  124. daedalus2uon 26 Oct 2008 at 8:14 pm

    Actually, I don’t think it is possible to quantize gravity. If there was a “quanta” of gravity, that quanta would have to have mass/energy associated with it, and when that mass/energy of that quanta was acted upon by a gravitational field (i.e. accelerated), it would necessarily generate gravitational radiation. However a gravitational quanta is the smallest unit of gravitational radiation, so there can’t be a smallest unit.

  125. Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 8:20 pm

    Thanks Jim.

    Supernataturalists tend to use language in a muddled and inconsistent way. Rather than buy-in to that confusion, I think we can define science clearly without making a supernatural/natural distinction.

    In addition to the links on naturalism.org, Richard Carrier also makes a very strong case for the position I hold. Here is a quote from him:

    “Hence I reject radical methodological naturalism, which holds that science can only investigate natural phenomena. Nonsense. Science would have no special problem investigating the supernatural. If there were any. But I do embrace pragmatic methodological naturalism, which holds that supernatural phenomena have been shown to be so scarce (in fact, as far as we can tell, non-existent), and therefore so improbable, that it is a waste of time and money to investigate supernatural hypotheses, or any uncorroborated paranormal claims. Science should only investigate the paranormal when there is sufficient reason to believe there is really something that needs explaining, and even then should only bother testing natural explanations first. This is a pragmatic position, not an epistemological one. If someone wants to spend his own time and money testing supernatural hypotheses and claims, then all the power to him.”

    So Richard Carrier has said exactly what I have been trying to say. Steve is endorsing “radical methodological naturalism” to use Carrier’s phrasing. But as Carrier states here and as I have said numerous times above, I support pragmatic methodological naturalism.

    No one seems to grasp the fact that when Randi offers to test a supernatural or paranormal claim, then Randi is departing from methodological naturalism.

    But Randi is still doing science.

    Science and methodological naturalism are not the same, despite what Steve Novella says.

  126. sonicon 27 Oct 2008 at 3:59 am

    Robert, Jim V
    Here is an article you might both like a lot.

    Replacing Methodological Naturalism
    By Robert A. Delfino

    http://www.metanexus.net/Magazine/tabid/68/id/10028
    /Default.aspx

    Well written, covers the points, has a concrete recommendation–

  127. sonicon 27 Oct 2008 at 4:29 am

    For the record-
    I think science is about the experiments.
    The explanations are interesting, but our most tested, validated science QM explains things with “It just works that way.”
    To quote Feynman, “No one has found any machinery behind the law.”
    I don’t give a rats ass if you want to call that natural or supernatural.
    If the Copenhagen Interpretation didn’t get in the way of science–
    we can stop the arguments.
    Science will win if we keep it about the experiments.

  128. Jason Streitfeldon 27 Oct 2008 at 5:49 am

    Robert,

    What happened? I thought we understood each other, but now you seem to be changing your position. The idea that “supernatural phenomena have been shown to be so scarce” is absurd. Supernatural phenomena haven’t been shown to be anything, because the notion of “supernatural phenomena” is irrational.

    There is no substantive difference between your definition of “science” and the one referred to by the term “methodological naturalism.” I thought you acknowledged that. But now you are saying there is a difference, and to suggest such a difference you seem to be implying that the notion of “supernatural phenomena” actually makes some kind of sense.

    Sonic,

    I don’t doubt the historical relationship between determinism and materialism. But the notions are philosophically distinct and in no way dependent upon one another.

    I think the blog post’s statement about materialism is valid. If science does show that there are fundamentally different parts of the universe that work together to create experience as we know it, then this would not be a mark against materialism, because materialism need not imply monism.

    The problem with dualism as it pertains to the philosophy of mind is that dualists claim that “mental stuff” is not amenable to scientific study. This is anti-materialism–not because it postulates some special “mind stuff” (perhaps cogitron particles) which works together with electrons and what not to produce minds, but because it postulates some special “mind stuff” which cannot be studied with the methods of science.

    This is why dualism is an untenable position in the philosophy of mind. If scientists do discover that there are some unique particles or fields which help create minds, then those particles and fields will be just as “material” as anything else scientists have discovered. Because that is all that the term “material” has come to mean.

  129. Jason Streitfeldon 27 Oct 2008 at 8:27 am

    sonic,

    The link you provided doesn’t work. But I found the right link:

    http://www.metanexus.net/Magazine/Default.aspx?TabId=68&id=10028&SkinSrc=GSkins%2F_default%2FNo+Skin&ContainerSrc=GContainers%2F_default%2FNo+Container

    The article leads to only one logical conclusion: Delfino is a junk philosopher.

    I hate to make such a harsh statement without backing it up, but I don’t have the time at the moment to enumerate all of the problems with his argument. I promise to do so, however, so please be patient. What I might do, actually, is post about it on my own blog, because I don’t think it will be appropriate to post an essay-length analysis here.

    Consider this one point, for the time being: where does Delfino define the term “supernatural?” Where does he explain how a “supernatural” discovery would be distinguishable from a “natural” discovery?

    He has failed to make a coherent argument for anything. All he has done is manipulate the language in absurd ways to make it look like science and methodological naturalism are not the same thing. It’s junk.

  130. Fifion 27 Oct 2008 at 9:13 am

    Jason please post a link when you do cover this in your blog. I’d be interested to read it.

  131. DevilsAdvocateon 27 Oct 2008 at 10:12 am

    It isn’t enough for ‘supernatural’ phenomena to be possible ‘in principle’. It must also be falsifiable. Science makes no claims about being the only pathway to reliable discoveries, just the best available way, and cites the need for falsifiability as a necessary limitation.

    RE: ‘God’ as a supernatural phenomenon….. ‘God’ as typically described interacts with the physical and is therefore, in theory, vulnerable to scientific scrutiny. However, ‘God’ as typically described is also unfalsifiable, therefore not subject to scientific scrutiny.

    The menu of other purported supernatural or paranormal phenomena suffer similar characteristics – physically vulnerable to scientific scrutiny as described, but largely unfalsifiable due to other described attriibutes, not least of which is the common apologetic claim they are ‘outside the purview of science’. Without sensible hypotheses for mechanisms of operation, they will remain so.

  132. Roberton 27 Oct 2008 at 11:09 am

    Hey Jason,

    Sorry, the important part I left out was that Carrier defines “supernatural” in an idiosyncratic way, although he thinks it is what most people mean when they use the word.

    “The idea that “supernatural phenomena have been shown to be so scarce” is absurd.”

    Carrier frequently takes issue with the notion that “you can’t prove a negative”. He would acknowledge that you cannot prove it absolutely, but he thinks we can be damn sure there are no ghosts or whatever.

    Yeah, the way YOU are using the phrase “methodological naturalism”, it is essentially the same as the way I define science. You read my criteria, and basically said that’s what you mean by “methodological naturalism”. OK.

    I keep saying I am done with this. I really mean it this time. So, I have cited two prominent philosophers of science, Brian Leiter and Richard Carrier, and also a prominent naturalism organization, all of who agree with me that science does not require “methodological naturalism”.

    The crux of all this is how you define supernatural. If you define supernatural as “not testable”, then science of course is out of the picture.

    But that is not how our supernaturalist friends usually use the word.

    By the way, I highly recommend Richard Carrier’s book defending naturalism called “Sense and Goodness”.

  133. DevilsAdvocateon 27 Oct 2008 at 12:29 pm

    “But that is not how our supernaturalist friends usually use the word.”

    Who cares how proponents define or use the word? There is no future in tailoring science to account for definitions and usages of a set of supernatural believers who will merely move their respective goalposts to hit whatever gaps are created by whatever tailoring science does to accommodate.

  134. Roberton 27 Oct 2008 at 12:44 pm

    “Who cares how proponents define or use the word?”

    If some clown claims to have a supernatural ability to move objects around with his mind then I want to test him.

    I want to set up an experiment and see if he can.

    I’m not willing to say “Oh, it’s supernatural, so I can’t test it.”

    That’s all I mean.

  135. Fifion 27 Oct 2008 at 1:13 pm

    Robert – Your argument makes no sense and there’s no need for “supernatural” to enter into it. (This is the second thing of this kind of thing you’ve said that is illogical – the first being the exorcism vs medicine thing.) An object moving around is an event in the natural world. Even if we couldn’t figure out why the object was moving, and if there was a hard correlation between though and object movement that could be proven, it wouldn’t be a supernatural event just because we don’t have an explanation for it (that’s the god of the gaps argument as I’m sure you know). Since both the object and the movement occur in the natural world, it’s a natural event (not a supernatural one). However this basic proof that telekenisis exists doesn’t itself exist so far despite many attempts to prove it (interestingly a lot of research into ESP and other “psychic” powers was conducted under the auspices of the Pentagon and Major Stubblebine, who is also behind the Health Freedom anti-supplement-regulation campaign).

    Most people I know who believe in ghosts and so on – and seemingly a great deal of people who believe in the “supernatural” – believe that these are events that happen in the natural world and that science just hasn’t figured out the mechanism yet. That’s why the Ramtha/Bleep/Quantum Physics and Toa of Physics thing is so popular with people – it proposes a seemingly natural explanation of events that they believe happen in the natural world (due to their subjective experiences or just wishful thinking) but that haven’t ever been objectively documented. For most people I know into this kind of thing – and I know quite a few – it’s their subjective experience that they find the most convincing.

  136. Roberton 27 Oct 2008 at 1:30 pm

    Fifi,

    You misunderstand me completely.

    There was nothing “illogical” about my exorcism example. If some priest claims he can treat delusions by performing an exorcism, then I want to put his claim to the test.

    I have never said, at any point, that I think my tests would demonstrate whether some event was “supernatural” or not.

    When I say that I believe looking for “supernatural” causes is idiotic, do you really not understand that?
    What part of that do you not understand?

  137. Fifion 27 Oct 2008 at 1:53 pm

    Robert – I explained to you what was illogical and why I thought your example was a poor choice. You seem to be misunderstanding me, I didn’t say you’d be looking for “supernatural” causes. I’m saying if something is observable in the natural world it’s natural, there’s no need to make allowances that “maybe supernatural causes exist” to be able to study anything in the natural world (and someone claiming that something that is observable in the natural world is due to supernatural causes means little other than they have a faulty explanation or consider something natural to be “supernatural”). So far there’s been lots of attempts to prove ghosts, miracles and so on do actually exist and no evidence – only subjectiver reports of experiences that reflect cultural expectations and common (incorrect) explanations for certain experiences. I highly doubt ghosts exist but if they were proven to exist then I’d consider it worth investigating them to find out what they actually are and how they manifest in the natural world where we’ve observed them.

    You proposed – “suppose a priest claimed that exorcism was more efficacious than Haldol for treating schizophrenic delusions. This claim could be tested scientifically, and that testing would not require that we look for only natural explanations.”

    I explained why this didn’t make sense…

    “Your choice of exorcism is an odd one (or designed to create a science vs religion debate) since it would only address a delusion that involved a belief that one was being possessed by a demon. If one was actually possessed by a demon (the reality of demons aside for the moment), one wouldn’t be delusional so the priest wouldn’t be “treating” the delusion. If, on the other hand, one wasn’t possessed by a devil but rather having a psychotic breakdown that included the delusion one was possessed by the devil, then treating a person with an exorcism would only reinforce the delusion and cause further harm.”

    Regarding terminology (and not directed Robert)…
    Gene’s earlier suggestion that we should use “unnatural” rather than “supernatural” is an excellent that more clearly defines what’s being discussed. Not only is it clearer, it removes a trigger word with disputed meaning and works far better in terms of messaging.

  138. Fifion 27 Oct 2008 at 2:02 pm

    Just to be clear about why you’re confusing to people – quite possibly unintentionally.

    First you said…
    “This claim could be tested scientifically, and that testing would not require that we look for only natural explanations.”

    Then you said…
    “I have never said, at any point, that I think my tests would demonstrate whether some event was “supernatural” or not.
    When I say that I believe looking for “supernatural” causes is idiotic, do you really not understand that?”

    What I don’t understand is you saying that, vis a vis your proposed exorcism study, that “testing would not require we look only for natural explanations” which sounds like an opening to look for unnatural explanations. What’s the point of creating that opening for studies to look for unnatural explanations when you say you think looking for “supernatural” causes is idiotic?

  139. Fifion 27 Oct 2008 at 2:17 pm

    The reality is science can’t test something that doesn’t exist in the natural world. It can test things that occur in the natural world that people CLAIM are supernatural. Science has its limitations, they’re worth being honest about. If science can’t study or observe things that don’t exist in the natural world, why pretend it can? Science is about exploring how things in the natural world work so we can better understand our world – it really is that simple. It’s not about creating personal meaning or the other roles that religion has historically filled (science merely made one aspect of religion redundant). That said, science can inform us of why certain things are meaningful to us and why meaning is such a big deal for us humans.

  140. sonicon 27 Oct 2008 at 2:22 pm

    Jason-
    thanks for correcting the link.
    I’m not suggesting that Delfino’s suggestion be followed, I just thought it was an attempt to overcome the difficulties being discussed. I agree there are difficulties in the attempt. I’m not so sure I would attack the guy in the way you have.

    You make the statement–
    “materialism need not imply monism.”

    But this is exactly what materialism is- a monism. All things are one substance. Here is a link to a philosophy dictionary that is not ideological (I hope… sometimes I get tricked)

    http://philosophy.uwaterloo.ca/MindDict/M.html

    Here’s a definition from that site-
    “monism
    The thesis that all of reality is of one kind. See materialism,…”

    another definition:

    “materialism

    The view that everything that actually exists is material, or physical. Many philosophers and scientists now use the terms `material’ and `physical’ interchangeably (for a version of physicalism distinct from materialism, see physicalism). Characterized in this way, as a doctrine about what exists, materialism is an ontological, or a metaphysical, view; it is not just an epistemological view about how we know or just a semantic view about the meaning of terms.”

    To say that materialism is not monism, or is not a metaphysical position, or is “whatever science finds” is to use the word in a way that is in direct conflict with how it has been used for 1000′s of years. It leads to cloudy thinking in that-

    a)it says the historical meaning of the word is meaningless or
    b) it makes claims to what science can find.

    But, if you look at the orthodox interpretation of physics you find it implies a duality.
    This gives us our most tested, most validated science we have.

    It seems that the argument here is to alter our most successful science to be something it isn’t- for reasons of dogma
    or
    change the meaning of a word to make it essentially meaningless.

    I honestly don’t think you agree with either. I think you are mistaken about what the word ‘materialism’ means and I think you are not fully aware of what the science has shown.

    I would like to discuss the meaning of the word (I will go with the historical) and/or what the science has shown. I would like to assume that you are very inteligent and that you are not trying to ruin science or have some other hidden agenda.

    Could we communicate at that level?

  141. Jason Streitfeldon 27 Oct 2008 at 4:43 pm

    sonic,

    I have no problem with the definition of “materialism” you offered. Apparently, you think that the term “physical” should be interpreted as a word that refers to a single substance. I don’t see any reason to make that assumption, though I do acknowledge that some philosophers in the history of the field have made that assumption. But we are talking about philosophy today, and we should acknowledge the recent trends and developments in the field.

    I think the term “physical” makes the most sense when it is used to refer to . . . yes, the natural world. (And I do regard the term “natural” as unnecessary here, since there is no other world to which we could meaningfully refer, unless we want to talk about imaginary worlds.) And the natural world is defined as whatever science discovers it to be.

    I see “material” and “physical” as philosophically equivalent terms here, and neither one should be assumed to be a single substance. So I stand by my original statement: materialism (and physicalism, of course) need not be monistic.

    What is the alternative?

    Would you prefer if people didn’t refer to gravity as though it were part of the material/physical world? What about quarks? What about black holes?

    What, in your view, is properly called “material” and “physical?”

    Is it not simply whatever scientists have discovered to exist and act in nature?

    I think the most common and sensible usage of the terms “materialism” and “physicalism” are to refer to a belief that whatever acts in (or on) the universe can be studied scientifically, because every physical/material effect has a physical/material cause.

    Those who argue for mind/body dualism argue against this view, because they want to believe that mind stuff is somehow outside the purview of scientific discovery. I oppose arguments for that sort of dualism, because it is illogical to claim that something can act in the world (and produce effects in the world) and yet remain protected from scientific observation.

    By adhering to materialism/physicalism, I am not making any statements about what scientists can or cannot discover. I am merely making statements about what we can logically say about knowledge and observation. And I believe my statements to that effect are logically sound and irrefutable.

    You said, “But, if you look at the orthodox interpretation of physics you find it implies a duality.”

    I’m not sure what you mean here. Are you talking about wave/particle duality? Are you suggesting that while particles can be called “material,” waves cannot? Or vice versa?

    Or do you have some other duality in mind?

  142. Jason Streitfeldon 27 Oct 2008 at 4:56 pm

    Fifi,

    About our side discussion of how to teach evolution . . . I feel bad for carrying on about this, since it’s not so related to the main discussion here. So I’ll just try to sum up my point: I think we shouldn’t be so afraid of opening up that can of worms. We shouldn’t be afraid of introducing into our public science classroom the explicit and ruthless crushing of dishonest and manipulative pseudoscience. It can help students better understand the importance of the science itself, and it can help them think critically about the subject. I think, especially in the case of evolutionary theory, it is what makes the subject the most relevant to many people’s lives.

    Anyway, I’ll post a link here when I post about Delfino’s article on my blog. It may be several days.

  143. Jason Streitfeldon 27 Oct 2008 at 5:17 pm

    Robert,

    How does Carrier define “supernatural?”

    You insist that the term is not generally defined to mean “not testable,” and yet I have yet to see anyone define it in a way that didn’t imply untestability. Perhaps Carrier is an exception.

    “So, I have cited two prominent philosophers of science, Brian Leiter and Richard Carrier, and also a prominent naturalism organization, all of who agree with me that science does not require “methodological naturalism”.”

    Just to remind you, that naturalism organization’s Website did support my view here. They said that, sure, science does imply naturalism, if you are talking about the “benign” sort of naturalism that every scientist in his right mind is talking about when he uses the term.

    All those arguments about science not implying methodological naturalism are arguments against a straw man, because no legitimate scientist has made them. What they are talking about is a smear campaign waged by ID/DI crowd.

    Your view is that we should be able to test claims about, for example, the ability to read people’s minds. Well, of course we can test such claims. Methodological naturalism does not say we cannot test such claims. It just says that whatever means we use, and whatever results we get, are presently and will thereafter remain defined as a part of what we call “the material world,” aka “the universe.”

    Please show me one legitimate scientist (I know, sometimes it’s hard to separate them from the cranks) who has not used the term “naturalism” in this way. Because the charge here–the sort of naturalism you are arguing against–looks like nothing more than a straw man.

    As for Leiter, I think his claim about methodological naturalism being a position arrived at through a posteriori judgment, as opposed to a priori reasoning, is flawed, and it seems to lead him into a confused stance on the issues here.

    The flaw, in a nutshell, stems from the fact that, first, methodological naturalism is an a priori position, in so far as it established a way of talking about science which allows us to make logical judgments about propositions. For example, methodological naturalism allows me to state that “whatever cannot be empirically tested is not a part of nature.” That is basically a tautology, an a priori truth, according to methodological naturalism. However, this does not mean that a posteriori judgments were not involved in the genesis of this position. So Leiter is right about the importance of a posteriori judgments in establishing methodological naturalism. He’s just wrong in thinking that somehow takes away the a priori aspects of the position.

  144. Jason Streitfeldon 27 Oct 2008 at 5:32 pm

    sonic,

    Let me just amend my last point about monism, because I probably haven’t been clear enough about what I mean here.

    I acknowledge that materialism/physicalism are often considered a type of monism. My point here is that I think this idea is misleading.

    On the one hand, physicalism refers to a belief that all events can be reduced to that which is discoverable within the field of physics. This is just another way of saying that whatever happens is within the purview of scientific discovery.

    This position is often called a sort of monism, because it uses one word (“physical”) to refer to whatever scientists discover. But calling it a monism is misleading, because it does not say that there is one substance, or that scientists are only capable of discovering one thing. It places no limitations on what scientists can discover, and it does not decide beforehand what we call “physical.”

    So what’s the point in calling it a monism?

    I see none. That’s my point.

  145. pecon 27 Oct 2008 at 8:00 pm

    There is nothing in this universe except matter.

  146. pecon 27 Oct 2008 at 8:00 pm

    Everything is matter and matter is everything.

  147. pecon 27 Oct 2008 at 8:01 pm

    See, I can post as long as I don’t disagree with materialism.

  148. JimVon 27 Oct 2008 at 8:24 pm

    I have no special expertise in the supernatural, so this is just my opinion, worth what you paid for it. I think “supernatural ” means an ability to supersede the known laws of nature – stop the Earth’s rotation so that the Sun seems to stand still without loose objects flying off into space, for example. Supernatural beings are those beings (if any) that have this ability. Typically they have no mechanism by which they accomplish this other than sheer will.

    If such beings existed and were mischievous or profligate in their meddling, it would be impossible to do science, since experiments would not be consistently replicable. The fact that science works as well as it does probably rules that extreme out, although some claim such a being exists and his name is Murphy.

  149. CKavaon 27 Oct 2008 at 8:35 pm

    pec… do you ever get bored of inventing conspiracies? If people really didn’t want you to post your opinions wouldn’t they have just banned you a long time back? Your free to present entirely nonsensical arguments as much as you like as long as you don’t trigger the auto-spam filter which you seem to have trouble avoiding.

  150. pecon 27 Oct 2008 at 8:38 pm

    No JimV, the effort to explore beyond the known laws of nature does not in any way resemble your definition of “supernatural.” For example, the possible existence of biological energies, which materialists will not even consider, would in no way supersede the known laws of nature.

  151. pecon 27 Oct 2008 at 8:40 pm

    My previous comment might disappear tomorrow, since it does not agree 100% with materialism. This blog is, after all, about politics not science.

  152. pecon 27 Oct 2008 at 8:42 pm

    “Your free to present entirely nonsensical arguments as much as you like as long as you don’t trigger the auto-spam filter which you seem to have trouble avoiding.”

    You are wrong. Since you don’t see any of my comments that are moderated and screened, you are not aware of the process, and of course you would not believe me. If someone attacks me I can’t reply, because my reply will not be posted. The purpose of this blog is political, with only a pretense of open communication.

  153. pecon 27 Oct 2008 at 8:43 pm

    However, when my IP changes they fail to screen me for a short while. So that’s why I am getting some comments in right now. They will probably disappear tomorrow.

  154. sonicon 28 Oct 2008 at 3:28 am

    Jason,
    The definition of materialism- (I’m quoting American Heritage now)
    “The theory that physical matter is the only reality and that everything,, including thought, feeling, mind , and will, can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena.”

    Monism- “The doctrine that mind and matter are formed, or reducible to, the same ultimate substance or principle of being.”

    Materialism is a monism by definition. Can you quote a dictionary or philosopher that would refute that? I can’t find one. (I do look hard for things) In fact, I’m pretty sure that ‘materialism’ is an archetypical example of a monism. This is why I believe that Steven makes an error here, and I don’t think it is a small error. It implies that science must adhere to a philosophy of monism and that is a false statement. It implies what science can discover, and this is again a false statement.

    The example I would give is our best, most tested, most validated science, quantum mechanics.

    Here I would refer you to what is called the ‘orthodox interpretation’ (Von Neumann). The reason I’m using that is because I read many, many actual experiments that are being done by real physicists today around the world and they all use this.
    Is that a good enough reason?

    In that interpretation (the one the scientists actually use to figure out what results to expect) there are two very different types of things involved-
    1) a deterministic Schroedinger equation (for which there is a mathematical equation) and
    2) a ‘free’ choice of the experimenter (for which there is not an equation)

    Sometimes these are called
    1) a deterministic Schroedinger equation
    2) the knowledge of the observer (which is governed by a ‘free choice’ as to when to take a measurement)

    We have two distinct types of things- one described mathematically, the other not.

    I am not suggesting that this is the last word on the subject. (The observer problem as it is called has been with us and despite my best efforts it continues. I don’t feel too badly, Einstein failed to solve it too)
    I am suggesting that we can state with some certainty that it is not necessary for science to be based on a materialistic or monistic assumption.
    In fact, our best science to date is not.
    (You might be interested to know that the original Copenhagen Interpretation was subjectivist-, ie., non-physical and was used to predict many phenomena- includung some that make it possible for us to be communicating via computer!)

  155. Jason Streitfeldon 28 Oct 2008 at 6:06 am

    sonic,

    I acknowledged that materialism/physicalism is often thought of as a monism, and I may very well be one of only a few people who cares to point out the inconsistency with that view.

    My reasoning here should not be dismissed on the grounds that you haven’t found any philosophers who happen to agree with me.

    If you insist that the terms “material” and “physical” must refer to a single substance or principle, then you are ignoring common usage and adhering too strictly to an antiquated sense of the term.

    The terms “physical” and “material” are generally used (by philosophers and scientists) to refer to whatever tangible, measurable properties of the universe have been discovered.

    Materialism does not place any limitations on what science can discover, or how it can discover it. It merely provides a vocabulary for talking about scientific methods and discoveries. Any new methods or discoveries are regarded as “material,” so long as they allow for repeatable testing, and nothing is disqualified ahead of time–so long as it is logically coherent and consistent.

    So, why insist on calling materialism/physicalism a monism? Because the dictionary says so? Because philosophers hundreds of years ago said so?

    Dictionaries and long-dead philosophers are notoriously good at confusing philosophical discussions, so let’s not give them more attention than they are due, okay?

    About physics . . .

    Your argument about the observer problem is not persuasive. There is no established notion of an “observer” here, so right away, your argument suffers from a lack of specification. There is no grounds for making any argument for a sort of dualism, as though we had evidence that some immaterial mind stuff were at play. In fact, an “observer” can simply be defined as any classical mechanical system.

  156. Fifion 28 Oct 2008 at 8:15 am

    Jason – While I concur on you about the “should” of being able to vigorously debate religious pseudoscience in a science class, I just don’t think it’s a very practical or tenable proposal to include it in a curriculuam that has to be approved by people on school boards (when talking about the US particularly). I look forward to discussing this with you at a later more appropriate time.

    Thanks for your posts on naturalism and the supernatural/unnatural. (I really do like the idea of using “unnatural” since it reclaims the term from the Fundies who like to apply the term to things that are natural but “unbiblical” – to coin a term.) Your ability to explain what you mean in a very clear and understandable way is appreciated.

  157. Fifion 28 Oct 2008 at 8:27 am

    “Biological energies” impy that the energies and their source are physical, being “biological” and all. If “biological energies” is meant to be a more sciency sounding word for ghosts or spirits or ESP, it’s a bit silly since “biological” locates the cause of the energies is physical. In many ways, I’d suggest that the mind is actually a manifestation of “biological energy” since it’s the energetic and biochemical manifestation of brain processes. All very physical, nothing “supernatural” to be seen here (or described if the terminology being used is “biological” ;-) )

  158. mindmeon 28 Oct 2008 at 8:51 am

    People who demand science starts allowing a non-materialist approach I wonder why they don’t allow their auto mechanic the same leeway. Would they be keen to pay their mechanic if he claimed fuel line demons were the cause of his problem and required exorcism?

  159. sonicon 28 Oct 2008 at 1:08 pm

    Jason-
    What confuses a discussion is using words in ways that nobody can possibly understand. (If I can’t use a dictionary to find the definition, if you are going to use a word in a way that nobody else who talks about the subject uses it, what the heck???)
    At this point I would have to say that I have no idea what you are talking about- how could I?

  160. Fifion 28 Oct 2008 at 1:24 pm

    sonic – One can define terminology – the meaning of a word being used – by discussing and clearly delineating what one means. It’s actually the best way to be understood in conversation.

    Obviously the dictionary version (and not even the OED one!) is not the authoritative definition of a philosophy. What is useful in a conversation is to define what YOU mean (you can use a dictionary definition if you want and it reflects your understanding but it doesn’t actually lend authority to your position in a high level discussion since dictionary definitions by their very nature are simplistic and the word or name may well carry all kinds of meaning in a specialized context).

    For instance, you’ve been asked to define what YOU mean when you say “material” or “physical”. What do you mean since you don’t seem to use the word as most people do when discussing science?

  161. Jason Streitfeldon 28 Oct 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Thanks for so clearly making that case for me, Fifi.

    sonic,

    I think I’ve been clear in my usage of the terms, and I don’t see where I may have abandonded reason or common sense. So I have nothing more to add at this time.

  162. Ian Wardellon 31 Oct 2008 at 12:01 am

    Roberton 26 Oct 2008 at 12:33 pm

    Jason,

    If a theistic God has any effect in this universe, then that God is in principle discoverable by science.

    Do you disagree?

    …………………………………………………………

    If a conscious mind has any effect in this universe, then that conscious mind is in principle discoverable by science.

    I’m afraid not because if the physical world is closed (as the materialists assume), then consciousness (whether of God, me, you, or anyone else) is causally superfluous.

    Neither the infinite consciousness of a “God” or the finite consciousness of a human being are discoverable by science. They are metaphysical hypotheses, not scientific ones.

    So I don’t know about Jason, but I certainly disagree.

    Ian Wardell
    http://existenceandreality.blogspot.com/

  163. Jason Streitfeldon 01 Nov 2008 at 9:38 am

    Ian,

    I’m not sure what you mean by “closed.” According to the second law of thermodynamics, energy cannot be created or destroyed. So, if that is true, then the universe is closed, because no new energy can come in, and none can leave. Is that what you mean by “closed?”

    In any case, I see no reason to regard consciousness as a metaphysical hypothesis. I don’t see the sense in regarding any aspect or object of experience–or experience as a whole–as a metaphysical, as opposed to a physical, phenomenon.

    You’ve recently used the term “metaphysical” in another discussion here, and I asked for clarification there as well. I don’t find “metaphysical” to be a useful term, unless we are talking about antiquated philosophical arguments or new age mysticism.

    We have every reason to think of consciousness as a scientifically observable phenomenon. In fact, scientists have already begun observing parts of it. They just lack a complete description.

    You seem to be not only arguing for an explanatory gap, but for a dualistic view of experience which regards consciousness as somehow otherworldly. I don’t think that makes sense, Ian. It is, at best, an irrational case of wishful thinking. At worst, it is stubborn ignorance. (I’m not saying where I think you personally fall on that spectrum of possibilities, mind you.)

  164. Jason Streitfeldon 01 Nov 2008 at 9:42 am

    Sorry, that was the first law of thermodynamics I was talking about.

    Of course, in quantum physics it has been supposed that quantum fluctuations can occur which might add or subtract energy from the universe willy-nilly. So I’m not sure how strongly we should adhere to the first law of thermodynamics anymore.

  165. Jason Streitfeldon 01 Nov 2008 at 10:41 am

    Fifi,

    I posted it in the more recent discussion of methodological naturalism, but in case you’re not following that discussion, here is the link to my full-length criticism of Robert Delfino’s paper on methodological naturalism, as promised:

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

  166. [...] by the Discovery Institute so as to include non-materialist neuroscience, Steven Novella goes on to cheerlead, for methodological naturalism – about which I will say only [...]

  167. Darwiniana » Mind/brain ad infinitumon 25 Nov 2008 at 8:25 pm

    [...] Novella has a second essay on the brain/mind debate (we have several posts here on the first):Reports of the Demise of Materialism Are Premature – Part II (see also: Dualism Dueling With Science? With all this discussion of materialism I guess I should [...]

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