Notes From Babel

Beneath What Is Seen Is That Which Is Unseen

with 6 comments

Tim Sandefur was not happy with me when, in May 2007, the Chapman Law Review, of which I was editor-in-chief at the time, published an article by Steven W. Trask entitled Evolution, Science, and Ideology: Why the Establishment Clause Requires Neutrality in Science Classes. So upset was Sandefur that he not only wrote a scathing attack on it at Positive Liberty (in which he admonished me and several other named individuals to feel “deeply ashamed” of ourselves for our association with the work), but even submitted a rebuttal to the Chapman Law Review, which was published in its next issue. 11 Chap. L. Rev 129, 135 (2008).

Francis Beckwith has now joined the fray by submitting his own letter to the editors of the Chapman Law Review, which letter was recently published in the Fall 2008 issue. Sandefur’s blog response promptly followed.

In this particular debate, Sandefur continues to fail to come toe to toe with the nature of the problem. That is to say, while Sandefur trumpets the utility of science, he ignores the metaphysical objections at issue, most famously expressed by David Hume when he demonstrated that science’s most essential tools—induction and causation—could not be proven by empirical observation. Metaphysics thus underlies all science, and is precedent thereto. Accordingly, any honest practitioner of science must necessarily admit to certain metaphysical precommitments.

As an example of the superficiality of Sandefur’s arguments, in his response to Trask’s article referenced above, Sandefur cites an anecdote by pop-atheist Richard Dawkins that “there are no postmodernists at 30,000 feet.” Again, usefulness is not the same thing as knowledge. The question is not how we test whether things are useful, but how we can justify our claims to knowledge in them. I explained this further in a response to a post by Ed Brayton who also joined in blasting Trask’s article, also without coming toe to toe with the metaphysical crux of the problem.

I have no dog in the fight between Sandefur and Beckwith, or between Sandefur and Trask. Indeed, I am interested less (or not at all) with advancing Intelligent Design theory than I am with the fact that so many folks, even highly intelligent ones like Sandefur, appear entirely unable to grasp the limits of science. But Sandefur’s excessive use of strawmen and misdirection in these discussions has been troubling. Sandefur says that anyone who does not subscribe to science qua epistemology (as Sandefur states, “[s]cience is certainly an epistemology”) “[t]hey want equal time for unscientific appeals to supernaturalism.” I don’t know who is talking about “equal time.” As I suggested in a previous post, the competing metaphysical views underlying natural selection theory ought to be presented “in a confined discussion about metaphysics, or, if that makes the scienceniks too nervous, forget the whole thing.” But I don’t hear anyone advocating the teaching of miracles or otherwise subverting the scientific method. If there are, I will gladly join in the arguments against them. As to “unscientific appeals,” science itself is “unscientific,” in that its parameters are defined by metaphysics, not observable demonstration.

Sandefur also states that “they want their acceptance of magic to receive the same respect that rigorous scientific discourse receives.” Again, I don’t know who wants this. Scientific truth is different than metaphysical truth. Once we accept scientific principles, the truths that are derived by that process systematically follow. But the acceptance of “science” in the first place is not and cannot be justified by scientific method. Metaphysics precedes science. The objections are not to the truths that are yielded by scientific process, but to the suggestion that there is nothing, but nothing, that falls outside the scrutiny of science, all the while subscribing to unstated and invisible metaphysical precommitments. Sandefur’s use of the word “magic” is obviously pejorative and designed to dissuade objectors lest they appear foolish and ignorant.

Intelligent Design (at least in the limited sense in which I would support it at all) deals with the systematic limitations of science. It is a metaphysics that purports to address the necessary network of precommitments needed to engage in scientific inquiry. To attack such a metaphysics on the erroneous assumption that it intrudes on science’s territory is not to think too little of the metaphysics, but to think too much of science.

Objectivists such as George Smith have attempted to explain away science’s metaphysical gaps by suggesting that the job is done by self-verifying truths, such as the law of identity. As Rand and her followers like to express it, “A is A.” But this charitably terse expression makes it quite easy to identify where the unjustified and arbitrary leap occurs: the word “is.” At the risk of sounding like Bill Clinton, let’s ask what is meant by that word. If A is A, then the present A is identical to the present A. But that cannot be all that is meant, else the expression would be quite useless. What is also meant is that A has always been A, and that A will always continue to be A. That is, the simple statement makes profound assumptions about the reliability of memory of the past, the predictability of the future, and the orderly perpetuation of the present state of affairs throughout time. Is all of that self-authenticating? Certainly we need to believe all of that to do science. But is something true simply because it is convenient?

The fact is, science cannot account for the metaphysical ideas that justify and sustain it, as well as those contained in natural selection, i.e., the idea that we were directed not by God but instead by nothing. When scienceists insist that they and they alone should be permitted to fill in the gaps of this metaphysical construct with the ideas that they deem appropriate, they run smack into the very problem they started with: the positing of “truth” by arbitrary fiat. And when a critical mass of such folks, particularly when organized around a set of metaphysical principles handed down by a leader given special reverence (viz., Ayn Rand), get together in an effort to proselytize their views, there is a word for that: religion.

The Secular Right contributor going by the pseudonym “David Hume” suggests that the fact that science has metaphysical underpinnings is “true but trivial.” I cannot believe that he truly thinks that. For the non-philosopher, such a statement may be true—talk among pointy-headed intellectuals usually yields no obvious benefit to things that matter to everyday life. But metaphysical truth—including things like rights and law and political theory—is profoundly important to human flourishing. To suggest that the only kind of truth worth knowing is the kind that can be used to build a better coffee maker is incredibly offensive to those who genuinely care about the human pursuit of knowledge.

Does any of this mean that science itself is a religion? No. Not anymore than language is a religion. But like language, science requires its practitioners to bring a metaphysics to the table. That is because science does not provide its own justification for concepts necessary to make it work, like induction, causation, and order.

The pursuit of truth and knowledge is thwarted, not advanced, by lobotomizing entire areas of thought. Despite Tim Sandefur’s call, no one should feel ashamed for refusing to disavow the possibility of truth that casts no shadow.

Update: Jason Kuznicki has this post at Positive Liberty that offers an example of how closely metaphysical questions relating to epistemology, theology, teleology, and ethics are bound up with Darwinian thought.


Written by Tim Kowal

April 30, 2009 at 6:51 am

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I think you guys should settle this like the real philosophers of our age… in the UFC octagon!


    April 30, 2009 at 5:56 pm

  2. So why is the metaphysics necessary in a *science* class now?

    Soul Searcher

    May 1, 2009 at 11:16 pm

  3. Metaphysics is necessary in a science class about as much as it is necessary in an English class. That is to say, not really at all. But when a science teacher wants to teach a theory that transcends the bounds of science proper, like natural selection, then eyebrows are raised as to that teacher’s metaphysical commitments. In other words, religionists aren’t the ones who are trying to introduce non-scientific ideas in science classrooms — such ideas are already there.

    Tim Kowal

    May 2, 2009 at 6:19 am

  4. […] Chapman Law Review, I spent a long time thinking and re-thinking this controversy.  <a href=>The conclusion that now seems inescapable to me</a> is this:  Natural selection and […]

  5. […] to stop demanding philosophical rigor from atheists.  As I’ve explained before (see, e.g., here and here), the problem with atheism is that does not replace what it purports to tear down.  […]

  6. […] * Even though to this day (well, yesterday), Tim seethes at my decision while editor-in-chief of the Chapman Law Review to publish a law review article with which he disagrees.  I was a little surprised to learn he’s still stewing over it given he’s never replied to my responses, e.g., here and here. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s