The following essay is a commentary on an article by Maarten Boudry called “How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical misconceptions about Methodological Naturalism” and, in a secondary sense, on an article by Barbara Forrest called “Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism: Clarifying the Connection” which is one of the main articles Boudry is responding to.
There appear to be two main camps regarding the proper role of Methodological Naturalism in science as described by the two articles above. The more popular position articulated by Forrest, by building on an ambiguous definition of the supernatural, develops a somewhat nebulous philosophy that is difficult to argue against. Boudry aptly points out the logical flaws of this position and reestablishes the discussion on a more solid philosophical platform. However, he in turn fails to see the logical implications of his own position and only takes into account a limited view of the supernatural.
It is very much possible that the confused position advocated by Forrest is intentionally so for two reasons: first, because it makes it more difficult for the opposition to argue against and second because it is more friendly a position to the still predominantly theistic general public the support of which is being courted.
1) To make it easier to follow along I will use the following convention when quoting or referring to a passage in Boudry’s article. I will identify the passage by section and paragraph number like so (4.1 p4).
2) Boudry’s article focuses primarily on Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) but the concepts it brings up have a broader scope than just that. So, for the most part, I will be discussing the issue in its broader sense and not in relation to IDC.
3) Because this is a discussion about the methodology of science in relation to naturalism and super-naturalism it brings up questions that might not typically be discussed in a scientific context. The issues are still important however from a philosophy of science standpoint.
4) At any given time in science, there are things we know with a good degree of certainty, there are things which we are in the process of learning and have the tools to discover and there are things that are currently out of our reach (established, tentative, unknown). This differentiation will be useful later in the discussion.
5) A prerequisite to this discussion is that we agree to accept only logic and science as sources of authority. We must also set aside our preconceived ideas and biases and agree to approach the topic starting with a blank slate.
6) One of the major problems in talking about the supernatural is that it is difficult to relate to. We usually try to understand things better by drawing comparisons to other similar things that we know more about. When it comes to the supernatural, there isn’t much in the natural realm that we can point to and use as examples of what the supernatural would be like. Towards the end of Boudry’s article however, two paragraphs before the conclusion (4.5 p.7,8), Boudry introduces something which I think we actually CAN use as an Illustration or Model for the Supernatural. He mentions a story of a mathematical world created on a computer with intelligent personoids in reference to which we would be like something supernatural.
This is a good analogy and I will make reference to it repeatedly throughout this essay. It will function as a backup on which to test the validity of the ideas presented. However, in order for the analogy to work, this mathematical computer model cannot be like today’s video games with cartoon-like avatars moving around a screen. This virtual universe would need to be created to function according to a set of Fundamental Forces like the four fundamental forces of our universe.
The intelligent personoids within this virtual environment will have to themselves be entirely the products of those forces. I.e. their “brains” should on the one hand fully account for their personhood and, on the other hand, be entirely the product of the fundamental forces of their environment. There should be a direct logical line going from the fundamental level to some kind of molecular level to a cellular and then an organ level.
Also, their universe should have some degree of complexity. It does not need to be as complex as ours but it should be complex enough so that it is not immediately apparent how everything works. In order to discover this, our virtual beings should need to first develop tools and follow the scientific method to conduct research. This would make it a more fit analogy for our universe.
I will be referring to this virtual universe as a Simulated Reality Model (SRM)
7) Finally, as I work through the various points I will occasionally break the discussion into two parts: one that considers a scenario where there is a Deist-like version of the supernatural and two, a scenario that incorporates a interventionist god. I find this differentiation useful because it helps to isolate issues that are specific to each scenario.
I concur with Boudry’s diagnosis that many of the problems with Forrest’s (and others’) perspective stem from a faulty definition for the supernatural.
He mentions several positions that have been espoused in the past such as:
“Although the focus in this paper is on different conceptions of MN, we note that Intrinsic MN should not be confused with a form of ON that is traditionally called philosophical naturalism (PN). According to this position, which has exerted a strong influence on the early scientific revolution, the notion of a supernatural explanation is simply incoherent. The proponent of PN maintains that only physical causes can bring about physical effects (the thesis of ‘causal closure’), and hence that the notion of a supernatural or non-physical cause is conceptually confused.” (3. Intro p.4 )
The second definition is used by Forrest where she claims that the minute we could understand the supernatural scientifically it would cease to be supernatural.
“To become more than a logical possibility, supernaturalism must be confirmed with unequivocal empirical evidence, and such confirmation would only demonstrate that this newly verified aspect of reality had all along never been supernatural at all, but rather a natural phenomenon which just awaited an appropriate scientific test. (Forrest 2000, 25)” (4.1 p. 5)
In contrast, he proposes what I consider a far more “workable” definition and one which makes possible a more coherent discussion:
“In accordance with our reconstruction of MN as an empirically grounded and provisory methodological guideline of science (PMN), we propose to define ‘supernatural’ as referring to any phenomenon which has its basis in entities and processes that transcend the spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy described by modern science (for a similar approach, see Stenger 2008, 14-16). In contrast with the foregoing analytical take on the issue, if any such supernatural force were to intervene in our material universe (and of course these are the cases of particular terrestrial interest) we still want to term it ‘supernatural’ here. As we will see, this definition is closer to the IDC’s conception of supernatural agency, and it is more relevant to the discussion of MN.” (4.1 p.11)
Clear definitions are very important in a debate. How can we determine which side is hitting the mark if we can’t quite tell where the mark IS? If we define the supernatural as something incoherent from the start or as a moving target which ceases to be supernatural the second we are able to wrap our minds around it, the conversation is practically crippled before it even starts. And there’s really no excuse for this definitional confusion since we have nowhere near that much difficulty defining the “natural.” And once that is done, the supernatural should simply be anything beyond those boundaries.
Let me also mention here another view that I come across quite often which does not outright dismiss the supernatural as incoherent but instead brushes it off as highly improbable and not worth taking into consideration. There is after all a logical possibility that the universe was burped into existence by an invisible pink unicorn, but we don’t spend time worrying about that.
So with these alternative definitions in mind let’s consult our Simulated Reality Model (SRM). Boudry is correct to say that there is no reason why the creators of this mathematical environment would not be able to interact with the personoids they created (4.5 p.7,8). This would be in response to the claim that the supernatural would be unable to affect the natural (causal closure).
When it comes to Forrest’s definition of a supernatural that changes with the advance of science, there is a sense in which she is correct. If the personoids in out SRM discover our existence, with time they will realize that our realm is also “Natural” and that their reality is a subset of ours. The problem however is that unless a clear distinction is made between our “natural” and the “natural” of their virtual universe, it would be very difficult for them to investigate this question. To do so, they would need instead to draw a line and say that everything that follows the fundamental forces of their universe will be considered “natural” and, if there is anything beyond that which follows a different set of laws, that would be, for the time being, labeled as “supernatural.”
Finally, if there is a real possibility that mankind will some day be technologically advanced enough to create a virtual universe with virtual beings, the possibility that our universe was created cannot be ruled out on the basis of it being too unlikely a possibility to consider.
I made a statement in the Abstract about Forrest’s position being intentionally confusing so let me address that here (I don’t mean that this was Forrest’s intention herself; she was not the first to come up with that position.) First, having a confusing debate framework is always to the disadvantage of the one who holds the burden of proof, in this case the supernaturalist. But more than this, there has been in recent years a growing frustration among scientists regarding the lack of acceptance of the theory of evolution with the general U.S. population.
One approach for dealing with this problem has been the argument that science uses a naturalistic METHODOLOGY only, and does not espouse a philosophy along with that methodology. This, in essence, implying that belief in God is perfectly compatible with science. The idea being that you’re not going to be able to convince the majority of people to let go of their belief in God so you need to find a way to make the two appear compatible. Boudry’s Provisional Methodological Naturalism would make this difficult since it is basically coming right out and saying that scientists have not found any good reason for believing in a God and are therefore ignoring that possibility altogether. And, while that is a more honest position (as in, it is what many scientists actually do believe) than saying that science is agnostic to the question of God, it is not something the public wants to hear. So in a sense, by writing his article, Boudry might have unintentionally hindered Forrest’s agenda.
Boudry’s Perspective – Provisory MN
Here are several quotes that I think describe his position well:
“Alternatively, we will defend MN as a provisory and empirically grounded attitude of scientists, which is justified in virtue of the consistent success of naturalistic explanations and the lack of success of supernatural explanations in the history of science. (Provisory MN or PMN). Science does have a bearing on supernatural hypotheses, and its verdict is uniformly negative.” (Abstract)
“Alternatively, we will defend MN as a provisory attitude of science based on the successful track record of natural explanations and the miserable track record of supernatural explanations. Supernatural claims do not fall beyond the reach of science; they have simply failed.” (1. Intro p.2)
“In contrast with this view, which we will criticize in the section below, we defend an alternative view of MN and of its legitimate function in scientific practice. According to what we call Provisory or Pragmatic Methodological Naturalism (PMN), MN is a provisory and empirically grounded commitment to naturalistic causes and explanations, which in principle is revocable by extraordinary empirical evidence. According to this conception, MN did not drop from thin air, but is just the best methodological guideline that emerged from the history of science (Shanks 2004; Coyne 2009; Edis 2006), in particular the pattern of consistent success of naturalistic explanations. Appeals to the supernatural have consistently proven to be premature, and science has never made headway by pursuing them. The rationale for PMN thus excludes IMN: if supernatural explanations are rejected because they have failed in the past, this entails that, at least in some sense, they might have succeeded. The fact that they didn’t is of high interest and shows that science does have a bearing on the question of the supernatural.” (3. Intro p.3)
When in the above statements Boudry says that supernatural explanations have failed, he seems to be referring to explanations for both how nature itself works as well as for claims of direct divine intervention, like in the case of miracles and intercessory prayer. I, as previously explained, will separate these two aspects and address first a deist-type scenario where a god is involved in creating our universe but not in actually interacting with humanity. Afterwards, I will come back and address the interventionist God scenario as well.
I mentioned in the abstract that I believe Boudry does not follow his own argument to it’s logical conclusion and also relies on a very narrow view of the supernatural. In essence he creates a sort of false dichotomy between naturalism on the one hand and one particular version of the supernatural on the other. So even though he uses a far more tangible definition of the supernatural and makes reference to “computer scientists [that] have managed to create conscious life forms in an artificial mathematical environment,” he does not take into account the various ways in which these scientist might go about creating such a virtual environment or how things are created in general.
In our experience with man-made devices there are generally three ways something can be constructed.
A) Assemble & Assist – We can build a device that requires our constant attention to function. An example of this would be a bicycle. With a bicycle we must constantly interact with the device for it to move. This is the type of arrangement many people in the past assumed God had with our planet. He caused the lightning and rain, he made our hearts beat, etc.
B) Assembly Only – The second way something can be built is with a mechanism that allows it to function on its own. An example of this would be a motorcycle. The motorcycle does not need constant effort from the rider to move. This corresponds to the view that a god created our universe as is but then set it in motion and it continues on its own without the need for constant maintenance.
C) Medium Only – The last option is to create only the “conditions” where things can then develop entirely on their own. We can set up a computer program with a set of rules for how elements can interact with each other and we can then create a state of instability such that these elements will attempt to rearrange themselves in search of equilibrium with the possibility of complex arrangements developing. This option would be very similar to naturalism except that the initial conditions are programed in rather than naturally occurring.
There is a continuum between these three options such that, as you move from A to B to C there is less and less intervention needed on the part of a creator. Most of the things we create fall somewhere on this continuum rather than on one of the 3 options directly.
So when Boudry says that supernatural explanations have failed, he seems to be mostly referring to type-“A” supernatural claims and ignoring the other options. In essence, people throughout history have made immature claims about gods being responsible for earthquakes and floods and rain and snow, today we have natural explanations for these phenomenon, and therefore Boudry feels we have sufficient reason to dismiss any further appeals to the supernatural.
Boudry might also be referring to strict type-“B” claims since now we have discovered natural mechanisms not only for how things work but also for how they came to exist (ex. evolution). The red line in the image above however represents aspects of our universe that Boudry CANNOT be referring to simply because we don’t yet have naturalistic explanations for them under the current state of scientific advancement and therefore it cannot be said that supernatural explanations have failed in regards to these aspects (ex. abiogenesis).
So Boudry is either completely ignoring the possibility of a supernatural somewhere between “B” and “C” or he is implying that, if a supernatural exists, it would, for whatever reason, use methods “A” or “B” to create our universe and not “C.” But why exactly is that? If someone was given an assignment to build a device, which of these 3 options are they more likely to use? And the answer is, there is no way to tell. It depends on the nature of the project, the time frame, even something as arbitrary as the person’s mood. It also depends on which method is actually capable of accomplishing the task. The naturalist however is obligated to accept the capacity of method “C” to accomplish the task since his own method is even more demanding. It requires the exact same thing option “C” requires, PLUS for the initial conditions to be naturally occurring. If you claim that a 6′ person can fit through a doorway, you can no longer question the likelihood that a 5’11” person can fit through (all else being equal).
If however, we WERE going to guess which method a creator would more likely use to construct a universe, it seems that he probably WOULD use a method somewhere between “B” and “C” rather than closer to “A,” and not just as an after-the-fact realization now that the data is in. It takes a whole lot of work, when creating something on this large a scale, to micro-manage every little aspect of this creation. Any time it is possible to set things up so that they can develop on their own and maintain themselves, a creator would probably take advantage of that.
Of course the question is, how much IS possible to set up so as to develop on its own? The naturalist must assume all of it is possible while the supernaturalist is not yet certain of that; some things might need additional intervention. The assumption many naturalists hold that, given enough time anything is possible, is not falsifiable.
People sometimes call it a “God-of-the-Gaps” fallacy to attribute to the deity those aspects of reality that science has not yet completely understood. But there is a provisory nature to supernaturalism just as there is to naturalism, only in reverse. If we uncover evidence that Option A is incorrect, then we fall back towards option B or further. And there is no shame in this since the failure of Option A provides no logical reason, in and of itself, to choose Naturalism rather than one of the other options. Science is adaptive. If a hypothesis fails, you come up with a different one and not necessarily the exact opposite. B and C are simply additional, equally valid options for how something could be developed based on our experience with man-made inventions and can only be dismissed once the evidence is in. There is no increased likelihood for Naturalism to be true as the evidence leads us closer and closer to C.
Another way this sentiment is often expressed is by saying that just because science does not yet have an explanation for something, it doesn’t mean that God did it. And, that is TRUE. It does not however mean that a naturalistic explanation WILL eventually be found either. There is no way to know that until we actually find it. The great track record of naturalistic explanations up to this point tells us nothing about their future success. If a deity chose to use a method for creating our universe that is closer to “C,” the great track record of naturalistic explanations up to now is exactly what we would EXPECT to find.
Let’s come back to the example I mentioned earlier of abiogenesis. A naturalist will say that, although we don’t yet have an explanation for how abiogenesis happened, we have some good ideas of how it probably came about. And that is great. However, there is no limit to the complexity of a problem that a vivid imagination cannot concoct plausible sounding solutions to. But until we can actually support that idea with evidence, we don’t really know. Often times naturalists are unable to fathom the possibility that we might NEVER find a solution to abiogenesis because it never actually happened since it COULD not have happened. They have no scientific or rational reason for dismissing that as a possibility; only that their worldview does not allow for it.
Theists on the other hand make the opposite mistake by claiming abiogenesis CANNOT happen and therefore a creator MUST exists. But there is no way to know that either. It could be that 10 or 100 years from now, scientists WILL figure out a process that allows for self-replicating cells to develop naturally (and a creator could exist even still). Both parties treat their BELIEFS as fact instead of evaluating the question rationally.
And this has a negative impact on science as well. Theists, because of their belief that abiogenesis cannot happen, stop looking for answers that might actually exists. Naturalists, by ignoring the possibility that abiogenesis might not have happened, could end up wasting all kinds of time and resources looking for a needle in a needle-less hay stack.
And, since I’m on the subject of beliefs, let me address another issue that often comes up. Some will argue that an omnipotent god would not need to create things so that they would develop on their own since he could just as easily create everything exactly how he wants it from the start. The idea being that the majority of people who disagree with evolution or with naturalism are Christians and, Christians believe in an omnipotent god, and an omnipotent god would have created the universe differently, therefore naturalism must be correct. And thus religion and theology get in the way of a sound evaluation of the subject and allow people to ignore other valid options by focusing only on those options that they have a religious/philosophical interest in. I am not omniscient so why in the world would I try to figure out what an omnipotent/ omniscient god would do in any given situation? What I CAN do is consider the different ways human engineers might go about creating a virtual universe, evaluate the different possibilities rationally and scientifically, and leave the theology to the theologians. The inability of people to keep religion/theology/personal beliefs out of this discussion is largely responsible for the general confusion that exists on the subject. And many times naturalists are just as much to blame for this as theists.
Now coming back to naturalism/supernaturalism, shouldn’t naturalism still be considered far more likely than supernaturalism to begin with? In other words, even if our ability to dismiss certain versions of supernaturalism doesn’t in and of itself make naturalism more likely, isn’t naturalism already more likely from the start?
I’m actually willing to grant this point in a procedural sense; i.e. Occam’s razor. All other things being equal, supernaturalism does introduce additional complexities. However, there is an inverse relationship between the two such that, the more difficult it is for naturalism to account for the specific complexities of our universe, the more plausible supernaturalism becomes.
Take for example the virtual beings in our SRM. If after studying their own environment in detail they realize that there is no way to explain the existence of their universe naturally, they would be forced to conclude the existence of a creator. (In fact, ruling out naturalistic explanations is probably the only way to demonstrate the existence of a creator if this creator chooses not to interfere and reveal himself directly.)
If the makeup of our universe was such that it could easily be seen how it could come into existence naturally, naturalism would definitely be far more likely than supernaturalism. However, in our universe, naturalistic explanations do pose some problems. For example, many scientists believe that, given enough time, our universe will degenerate into a state of heat death. Working backwards from there it seems that our universe must have begun with an initial burst of potential energy. And the question of course is where that came from and how this could be explained without violating the laws of physics.
Many theists try to make this into a “Cosmological Argument” claiming that the origins of the universe cannot be explained and therefore a god MUST exist. But again, there is no way to know that. The only thing that can be said is that the difficulties the nature of our universe pose for naturalism as well as the fact that we might soon be able to create a universe ourselves, offset some of the initial likelihood that naturalism might hold over supernaturalism.
And my goal in all this is not to claim that supernaturalism is more likely a possibility than naturalism or even AS likely. But simply that it is likely enough a possibility that it cannot be dismissed or ignored. It cannot be dismissed right off hand and, as I’ve explained earlier, neither can it be dismissed given the current success of naturalistic explanations.
I now want to turn my attention to the subject of methodologies. If there is a reasonable chance that supernaturalism might still be true, couldn’t we use methodological supernaturalism just as well as methodological naturalism? And the answer is that while we CAN use it, it probably isn’t the best idea. The way it would have to work is that we would have to hypothesize SOME degree of supernatural intervention, like say a “30” on my little graph above, and then work under those assumptions. If however, our assumptions prove incorrect, we would then need to scrap that hypothesis and form another one maybe at 25 and so on all they way down to zero. Instead of this it is far more convenient to just work under a naturalistic methodology and stay with that one hypothesis until/unless we hit a road block.
Also, as mentioned previously, the only way to determine supernatural intervention is to eliminate naturalistic alternatives and to do that you still need to make use of naturalistic hypothesis even if your overarching hypothesis is supernaturalistic. Besides the risk that supernatural assumptions could cause a person to stop looking for answers too soon; answers that might actually exist.
So overall, from a procedural standpoint, methodological naturalism is simply a more practical way to go about studying our universe irrespective of metaphysics. And, it seems to me that theistic scientists of the past realized this and adopted a naturalistic methodology even though it did not reflect what they really believed about the nature of reality. It was useful to them as a tool and they were able to keep the method and the metaphysics distinct and not to read more into the success of the methodology than was logically warranted.
With the passing of time however, the makeup of the scientific community seems to have shifted to being predominantly naturalist. Now there is nothing wrong with this shift in membership in and of itself. I think it is of benefit to science to have a good naturalist representation within the scientific community. What IS a problem however is the mistaken notion that seems very prevalent among many scientists today that, as a result of the success of methodological naturalism, the intelligent individual has very compelling reasons to adopt a naturalistic metaphysics as well. And, as I’ve already explained, this notion is neither reasonable nor scientific and stems from unsubstantiated personal beliefs coupled with confused definitions of the supernatural (Forrest) or narrow views of the supernatural (Boudry).
And this is actually to the detriment of science for several reasons. First, the public at large can sense the naturalistic bias of modern science and students that might otherwise consider a career in science are because of this more likely to turn to other fields instead. It is not a good idea to alienate large segments of the population and so drastically reduce the pool of future scientist prospects.
But consequences are even more drastic than that. The naturalistic leanings within the scientific community are fueling an anti-science/anti-intellectualist attitude among the theistic public which can have many negative effects in the long run. Scientists today are getting a taste of this with conservatives blocking them in congress and in the courts and seem very frustrated with it all. Many scientists are trying hard to counter this influence though I am not sure any of them realize that they are to a large degree to blame for the current anti-science backlash. Or at least, this naturalist bias makes it a lot easier for unbalanced/fanatical political or religious figures to gain support from the theistic masses all of which could be avoided if the scientific community themselves held a more balanced and factual view of how much we actually do know about the nature of reality.
So in summary, if we:
1) Determine to restrict ourselves to only reason and science as acceptable sources of acquiring knowledge,
2) Set aside our personal beliefs and biases and start with a blank slate,
3) Make use of a coherent definition of the Supernatural and check our reasoning using a Virtual Universe Model,
4) Focus only on a deist version of the supernatural and,
5) Consider the different ways something can be constructed,
We have to conclude that the supernatural cannot be dismissed initially nor, as of yet, can it be dismissed as a result of the success of naturalistic explanations.
For now, we have no way of ruling out the deist god.
The Interventionist God
Sometimes people think that although we cannot say anything definitive about the deist god, we can definitely rule out an interventionist god which, after all, is the one most people believe in. But that isn’t necessarily the case either.
Consider again our virtual universe model. A group of scientists and engineers get together and construct an SRM with virtual intelligent entities. At some point early in the process as these entities are becoming self-aware, the scientists/engineers will have to make a decision as to how to interact with them.
On one extreme they have the option of open communication where they make themselves known to these personoids and interact with them freely. On the other extreme, they can choose not to interact at all and just observe. But, in between these two extremes, there is quite a range of other possibilities. They can choose to interact only with certain individuals or only if certain conditions are met, etc., etc. They have the technical ability to intervene and it is THEIR prerogative to choose if and when. They are under no obligation to line up their process with the demands or the expectations or the scientific methodology of these personoids inside the machine.
When it comes to our own universe, the one thing we know for certain is that, if a god exists, it must be a god who did NOT choose the Open Communication option. For whatever reason, this god decided NOT to have open interaction with human beings such that, as a result, no one would ever be able to rationally question his existence. We don’t need to conduct scientific experiments to determine that; we know it from the start since, if that god DID exist, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Boudry feels that the failure of the Intercessory Prayer experiments provides good reason to seriously question the existence of the supernatural. “…if supernatural explanations are rejected because they have failed in the past, this entails that, at least in some sense, they might have succeeded.” (3. Intro p.3)
But let’s think for a second under what circumstances such experiments WOULD have succeeded.
1) If god were some sort of brainless sky puppet. He could not reveal himself directly but needed us to push certain buttons; repeat certain magic words, perform certain rituals etc.
2) If god were somehow impotent. He wants to reveal himself but is limited to performing minor miracles and just waiting for someone to set up a double blind experiment so he can reveal his existence for real.
3) God is stupid. He doesn’t realize he is being set up with our experiments and inadvertently reveals himself.
4) God’s arm is being twisted. By setting up these experiments we are somehow forcing god to respond even though he doesn’t really want to.
Now which of these reasons would be applicable to our group of scientists if the personoids in our simulation were trying to prove to themselves the scientists existed? Most likely none.
The problem many people have when thinking through these issues is that they apply the same rationale and process to intelligent entities (like god) as they do to inanimate matter. And, they only think of things from the perspective of what we know and can know without considering what we would do if WE were in the position of creators.
Such people feel that we must either demonstrate god/the supernatural so as to make it impossible for any rational, educated person to deny his existence or else we must conclude he doesn’t exist. And, in light of everything mentioned above, this just isn’t a rational expectation.
The reality is that science has settled quite a bit less about the issue of the supernatural than most people realize or admit. And, while it is everyone’s prerogative to believe anything they want to believe on the subject, they DON’T have the right to superimpose those beliefs on science or give an impression to the general public that science has somehow demonstrated more than it actually has.
The Provisory Methodological Naturalism perspective that Boudry is proposing is correct as far as methodologies go. The logical approach to science is to make use of a naturalistic methodology until/unless a roadblock is reached. Boudry makes the same mistake as Forrest however in that he prematurely draws metaphysical conclusions based on the success of naturalistic methods this far when we are not yet in a position to draw those conclusions.
These premature conclusions, besides painting an inaccurate picture of what science actually knows on the subject, are also a cause of unnecessary tension between the scientific community and the believing public, tensions which have had and will continue to have negative effects both on science and on society at large.
There is yet another important question that needs to be addressed which was not brought up in Boudry’s paper so I am addressing it separately:
Even if we cannot dismiss the supernatural for the reasons Boudry mentioned, unless there is positive evidence for the supernatural, there is still no reason to believe it, right?
Consider the following Darwin quote at the end of Boudry’s article:
“In a letter to biologist Asa Gray, Darwin wondered what would convince him of design (see also Coyne 2009):
If I saw an angel come down to teach us good, and I was convinced from others seeing him that I was not mad, I should believe in design… (Darwin 2000, 169-170)” (5 p3)
This statement is significant since here Darwin is admitting to a situation wherein he would consider belief the RATIONAL choice, when clearly the situation he is describing would never qualify as SCIENTIFIC evidence. If he saw an angel and others around him also saw that angel, that is still no reason for me, or anyone else who did not happen to be around, to also believe it. For Darwin’s experience to qualify as Scientific, it would need to be repeatable, an element which Darwin did not specify in his brief scenario.
To many people today, unless scientific evidence can be produced in support of something, it is irrational to believe it. This is problematic when it comes to the question of the supernatural since, as previously mentioned, making his own existence universally undeniable is clearly not something god is interested in doing, if a god does exist. And, scientific evidence would invariably make it such.
But is it rational to reject all but the scientific evidence? Darwin did not seem to think so but let’s also consult our SRM as well.
Let’s say our group of scientists had decided to follow an overall non-interference protocol with the intelligent personoids in our SRM. But let’s say on one occasion they decided to make contact with one individual. Would it be possible for them to reveal themselves in such a way so that the individual would then be able to rationally believe in the existence of the supernatural even though this revelation is not universal?
I believe two elements would be needed to convince a rational individual of the authenticity of such an event: Something that will make it clear the experience IS supernatural and, something to verify this was not a case of temporary insanity. Darwin addressed both of these by mentioning the angel as well as the presence of others to confirm.
So if our scientists make contact with one virtual individual giving him the evidences mentioned, would the rational step be to accept this as genuine or to reject it for being unscientific?
We are justified in being extremely cautious in what we accept into the general body of scientific knowledge. We would also be justified in not letting other people’s experiences be sufficient to convince us as well. But are we justified in dismissing others as irrational simply because the basis for their belief would not qualify as SCIENTIFIC evidence? Many times the processes we use for thinking about the supernatural would not be applicable if WE were in the position of creators.