Feb 22 2007

Science and Supernaturalism

In response to yesterday’s post essentially on the methodological naturalism underpinning science, A. N. Mouse wrote: “Supernaturalism may not be falsifiable, but non-supernaturalism is. All the supernaturalists have to show is one bona fide verifiable miracle (like levitating Richard Dawkins on stage, surrounded by a choir of angels and flying pigs) and the entire materialistic underpinning of science will be blown out of the water.”

This is actually a good segue into part two of this discussion – can materialism/naturalism be falsified? I argue that it cannot be. Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is the essence of why it is not possible to falsify naturalism. If, as Mouse suggest, Dawkins were levitated on stage, how could we know that the feat was not accomplished using advanced technology. The question also reminds me of a quote from Dr. McCoy on the classic Star Trek series, who once joked, “Once, just once, I’d like to be able to land someplace and say ‘Behold, I am the Archangel Gabriel.’”

The problem is that we are trapped within the physical natural world. We must abide by the physical laws of the universe. In order to falsify naturalism, one would have to somehow be outside of the constraints of naturalism itself.

Looked at another way, our knowledge must always be finite. Therefore there can always be something beyond our current knowledge, something we cannot explain. We do not know, and can never know, what the ultimate limits of the material universe are. We can only know the current limits of our understanding.

Imagine an alien race, a million years technologically advanced beyond current human civilization. Is it not reasonable to imagine that such aliens, armed with what is sure to be fantastically capable technology, could, if they wanted, come to earth an masquerade as gods? How could we tell the difference?

Mouse’s suggestion, that it is possible to falsify the non-supernatural, is actually a “god of the gaps” argument (which is an argument from ignorance logical fallacy). It is saying that if we encounter a phenomenon that is far beyond our current capability to explain, then that phenomenon must be supernatural and therefore falsifies the naturalistic assumption. Rather, all we can really say is that we cannot currently explain the phenomenon.

This in turns raises an interesting hypothetical question (usually raised by those who desire to have a belief in the supernatural): if we did live in a world with supernaturalism, how could we know? First, we need to clarify a matter of definition, for some have argued that anything that happens in the universe is by definition part of nature and is therefore part of naturalism. But for the sake of this hypothetical question let’s define supernatural as any phenomena that defies or suspends what are otherwise constant and immutable laws of nature.

The short answer is, we cannot know, for the reasons stated above. The best we could hope to do is to define an anomaly – some phenomenon that cannot be explained by current scientific models and that seems to defy our understanding of the laws of nature. Anomalies occur all the time, however. Each time we do not declare that a supernatural event has occurred. Rather, we understand that the phenomenon in question is an anomaly only in regards to our current scientific knowledge. They identify for us avenues of future research – they are signposts to gaps in our current model of nature.

A truly supernatural event, however, would produce a forever enduring anomaly – one that never yields to scientific research using methodological naturalism. Again, we run into a logical problem – for never never comes. So we cannot say ever that an anomaly will never yield to research, only that it so far has not. Therefore, declaring an enduring anomaly supernatural is still outside the realm of science and requires a leap of faith, and such an anomaly would not falsify naturalism.

We can, however, infer (if not prove) from our collective experience with the metaexperiment of methodological naturalism that supernatural occurrences are rare or non-existent. We can infer this from the historical fact that the whole science thing has worked out really well. Science, by which I mean methodological naturalism, could only work if we lived in a naturalistic universe, with few or no anomalous supernatural phenomena. If the laws of nature could be suspended willy nilly, and were on a regular basis, the endeavor of science would be largely hopeless.

Also, there are no enduring anomalies. There are always anomalies and unknowns in science, but they have been turning over at a regular (and accelerating) pace. The anomalies of a hundred years ago are different than those today. Those who wish to argue for the existence of the supernatural do not have true solid anomalies to point to. In desperation they point to pseudo-anomalies (like blobs on light on film they call ghosts, or spontaneous remissions they call healings, etc.). Again, do not confuse this point with the claim that science knows or can explain everything – of course it cannot. But there are no clearly established phenomena that completely defy scientific explanation and yet have endured as mysteries for centuries.

So while we cannot falsify the naturalistic underpinning of science, we can say that it is methodologically necessary, and also has worked out pretty well.

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