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More on the Limits of Science

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E.D. Kain responded to my last post regarding science, natural selection, and intelligent design.  Here was my reply:

Lest I get too far into this debate without defining my actual position on intelligent design, I am at best a faint of heart supporter.  I recognize that science, by definition, must assume a purely naturalistic order of the universe.  Positing the supernatural when happening upon inexplicable observations puts an end to scientific inquiry.  I want to be on record as saying this is a bad thing (though I don’t believe this is what serious advocates of intelligent design support).

Part of the reason I am only a faint of heart supporter of ID is because I am not a trained scientist or even an enthusiast.  I have no more than a cursory familiarity with the work of folks such as those at the Discovery Institute.  I’m even agnostic on how we got here.  I’m a Christian, but as far as God’s interaction in human affairs, I tend toward the deistic position—i.e., that God “wound up” the universe and let it go its course.  Maybe we came from monkeys.  Maybe God made each of us and the whole universe a half an hour ago, complete with memories about the past and fossils laying around everywhere so that we believe the universe is billions of years old.  Maybe we’re in The Matrix.  Who can say?

The reason I give any support to intelligent design at all is not so much because I think it’s a swell theory.  It’s instead because I see science-ists pushing the bounds of science beyond its proper limits and shrinking the bounds of human knowledge in an effort to fit all of one within the other.  My position is not a cheer for intelligent design but a “boo” to folks like Ed Brayton, who say things like “there is no such thing as a ‘scientific fact’, there are just facts.”  This attitude hurts both science and human inquiry.

I agree with E.D. when he says that science is “[t]he exploration of how the natural world ticks.”  Zeal for science is a good thing when we want to build a better toaster oven or an MP3 player or a spaceship.  And insofar as intelligent design means positing God as soon as we get stuck, again, that would be bad.

But what happens when we approach the limits of science?  Dinesh D’Souza has pointed that the likelihood of the Big Bang and the subsequent chain of events that occurred to make human life possible is even less than the odds of buying a lottery ticket in all 50 states and winning every time.  These odds are not lost on scientists, who account for this infinitesimal likelihood of our existing by borrowing a page out of Leibnitz and positing multiple universes—there are trillions of universes in which life as we know it did not occur until, finally, chance got things “right” and here we are.  In this way, say the scientists, it’s not so unlikely at all that we got here—we just got to spin the really big roulette wheel a trillion times.

The point is, at the outer reaches of human knowledge, science starts to get really silly.  So silly, in fact, that the argument can be made that the explanations offered by science actually seem less likely than alternatives.  When I was thinking about this problem on the drive home from work this evening, I thought about the movie The Matrix—that wonderful Cartesian playground that provides endless examples for philosophical discussions.  I wondered whether science, strictly adhered to, could have ever led Neo out of the matrix.  How would one account for the “déjà vu” experience with the black cat?  The scientific explanation would have dismissed out of hand the possibility of an embedded reality, which in fact was the case.  Science would only have allowed one to posit explanations that could be tested by empirically observable facts.  Rightly so?

Perhaps.  But science is permitted to make hypotheses that posit all kinds of data that are unobservable, but which scientists hope one day can be observed.  This goes for 95% of our universe, which scientists believe is composed of what they call “dark matter.”  It’s called “dark” precisely because it’s not observable in any way.  Same thing with all the “dark energy” in the universe we can’t detect.  After wading around in all this dark stuff and the trillions of universes in our “multiverse,” it shouldn’t be any wonder that there are serious scientists who are eager to re-engage the discussion about the limits of scientific inquiry.

Unfortunately, my time this evening prohibits me from discussing my position on teaching ID in schools.  I will try to tackle that tomorrow.  Thanks for the discussion, E.D.

[Update: This will probably my last contribution to this topic for a bit:

As I said, I am a faint of heart supporter, and by that I mean there is at least a kernel of scientific legitimacy to ID. Sadly, another reason I am “Faint of heart” in my support is because of the reactionary and emotional nature of ID’s opponents. All the overheated scienceniks really come out over this issue.My real point is that were scientists quietly doing their work and otherwise staying out of culture and law and politics, I wouldn’t have much motive to support ID at all. I already made clear my position against positing some supernatural designer to the extent it would end inquiry on any question. But I think this is an egregious straw man that has sadly made its way into the common understanding of what ID is. At its essence, it simply questions the assumption that all natural forces are guided by nothing. Even Richard Dawkins admits that it is indeed a valid scientific approach to merely suggest that there may be a purposive signature to natural phenomena. He just attributes the purposive force to aliens—who must have evolved through unguided, nonpurposive natural selection. Whatever sustains the buoyancy of one’s water vessel, I say.

Anyway, ID’s kind of an interesting theory in my book, were I a science enthusiast. But I’m not interested enough in science to seriously advocate it. Generally I try to stay out of the path of overzealous science ambassadors, but when I come across a post like E.D.’s, I feel some sort of civic duty to push back a bit. ]

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Written by Tim Kowal

January 11, 2010 at 11:54 pm

Posted in Intelligent Design

A Bully Is a Bully, Even If He’s Wearing a Labcoat

with 4 comments

I was disappointed to discover that E.D. Kain had joined the ranks of the intelligent design bashers.  I wrote this comment imploring him to reconsider.  I don’t think of E.D. as one of the Darwin-answers-all-life’s-mysteries intellectual bullies on the order of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or Daniel Dennett.  In fact, E.D. is a religious person.  But many religious people these days have trouble understanding how far their allegiance to science must go.  There’s a “you’re either with us or against us” mentality when it comes to modern science, with scienceists like Dawkins and Hitchens and Dennet telling us all if we hold to any religiosity or metaphysics, we are something like intellectual terrorists. This, of course, is dangerous nonsense—as dangerous even as any cult teaching.  Even moreso as science proves a larger and larger part of modern life.

I would urge anyone concerned about this debate to consider the arguments in my letter to E.D., below:

E.D.,

I read one of your posts earlier this week talking about how you can be changed on issues (a rare quality).  I believe you should seriously consider changing your view that evolution is “real science” and that intelligent design is “fake science.”  After  I was chastised by atheists for publishing an article on the subject while editor-in-chief of the Chapman Law Review, I spent a long time thinking and re-thinking this controversy. The conclusion that now seems inescapable to me is this:  Natural selection and intelligent design rise or fall on the same principle—they are both metaphysics, an attempt to explain things that can only be explained by positing a theory of the our entire reality.  Intelligent design 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.  While natural selection posits there is nothing guiding evolution, intelligent design posits there might be something.  Whether you choose nothing or something is immaterial, because simply by asking the question you have stepped out of the realm of science and into the realm of metaphysics.  And all of a sudden we find we all have our pick axes swinging at the wall of separation.

Science cannot account for the metaphysical ideas that justify and sustain it, including 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 (e.g., Ayn Rand), get together in an effort to proselytize their views, there is a word for that: religion.

Does 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.  To even the religious among us these days, science is the gold standard of truth. Labcoats are preferred to armchairs. No one wants to hear about metaphysics—the physics part sounds good, but this “meta” must mean less good, no?—like “semi” or “pseudo”?

To the contrary, the prefix means “more comprehensive; transcending,” as in, physics presupposes metaphysics. Without metaphysics, there can be no physics. Metaphysics gives us the tools we need to do science. Scientific method?  Metaphysics. Induction?  Metaphysics.  Causation?  Metaphysics. Unified theory of everything? You get the idea. Strictly speaking, natural selection is not a scientific theory.  It is a metaphysical theory presupposed by scientists in order to do evolutionary biology.  Evolutionary biology is great.  We have profited tremendously from it.  But we cannot fail to recognize the boundaries this brand of science, or try to re-label its metaphysical origin as science simply because we have grown so fond of it.

This leads to the question of why knowledge got to be so cloistered.  Why did metaphysics become branded as “religious,” and thus become such an unsavory—indeed, illegal—topic in our schools?  Does one think of Plato and Aristotle as “religious” instructors?  Certainly not.  There was a time when metaphysics could be freely discussed without so-called scientists ginning up insults about flying spaghetti monsters and Hegelian moon-monkeys and slimy custard men.  But I get it.  Scientists like power and control as much as anyone.  You don’t get those Ph.D’s by correspondence, after all.  So if you can reduce the scope of all respectable inquiry into the bounds under the jurisdiction of your Ph.D, then you’ve made the one-eyed man’s journey to the land of the blind.

In this light, Ben Stein’s references to images of totalitarianism are not hard to explain.  Once a group uses bullying tactics and governmental force to win one debate, it’s hard to anticipate whether or why they’d ever stop.  And as government grows larger and larger, it becomes no alternative to say “exercise metaphysics in your own private sphere.”  What private sphere?  Where the average person’s wage comes from public employment, health care from government insurance, and schooling from government instructors, one is going to need a map and some goggles to find much of anything private.

This all gets to what folks such as those at the Discovery Institute have their alarm bells ringing about. Whatever you think about intelligent design, it is right to be bothered that science now thinks it can start injecting into classrooms such non-scientific fields as teleology and metaphysics. The notion that teachers could indoctrinate students about a “purposeless” universe guided by nothing is just as objectionable as if they were teaching a purposeful universe guided by something.  They are two sides of the same coin. The problem is we are dealing with a metaphysical “coin”: either way, preference is given to one side or the other in a science classroom when science proper has nothing to say about it. Present both sides in a confined discussion about metaphysics, or, if that makes scienceniks too nervous, forget the whole thing.  (Incidentally, I don’t see why more than a single lecture at the beginning of a biology class would be needed to give the basic contours of the debate.  It certainly doesn’t need to occupy an entire semester.  My high school class spent most of its time learning about cell innards and how plants eat sunshine and occasionally poking around inside some dead thing.  Not a lot of time left for zany discussions about how a purely naturalistic view of reality requires positing a “multiverse” with an infinite number of daughter universes of which ours is but one.  Science fiction and Star Trek were for after school.)

God should not be injected into science classrooms, but neither should science teachers extend the proper borders of their field. Science has moved beyond focusing on method and has traced its way back up to where it splits off from the rest of philosophy at the juncture of metaphysics and epistemology. Ironically, the intelligent design proponents who are holding ground at that crossroads defend not only metaphysics and religion, but science as well, refusing to let method- and certainty-oriented science trod upon the more nuanced and transcendental branches of the knowledge tree.

So, I urge you, E.D., do reconsider whether folks like Ben Stein truly deserve your ire.

E.D.,

I read one of your posts earlier this week talking about how you can be changed on issues (a rare quality).  I believe you should seriously consider changing your view that evolution is “real science” and that intelligent design is “fake science.”  After  <a href= https://notesfrombabel.wordpress.com/2008/11/15/empiricists-can-be-fanatical-too/>I was chastised</a> by atheists for publishing an article on the subject while editor-in-chief of the Chapman Law Review, I spent a long time thinking and re-thinking this controversy.  <a href= https://notesfrombabel.wordpress.com/2009/04/30/beneath-what-is-seen-is-that-which-is-unseen/>The conclusion that now seems inescapable to me</a> is this:  Natural selection and intelligent design rise or fall on the same principle—they are both <i>metaphysics</i>, an attempt to explain things that can only be explained by positing a theory of the our entire reality.  Intelligent design 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.  While natural selection posits there is <i>nothing</i> guiding evolution, intelligent design posits there might be <i>something</i>.  Whether you choose nothing or something is immaterial, because simply by asking the question you have stepped out of the realm of science and into the realm of metaphysics.  And all of a sudden we find we all have our pick axes swinging at the wall of separation.

Science cannot account for the metaphysical ideas that justify and sustain it, including those contained in natural selection—i.e., the idea that we were directed <i>not</i> by God but instead by <i>nothing</i>. 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 (e.g., Ayn Rand), get together in an effort to proselytize their views, there is a word for that: <i>religion</i>.

Does 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.  To even the religious among us these days, science is the gold standard of truth. Labcoats are preferred to armchairs. No one wants to hear about metaphysics—the physics part sounds good, but this “meta” must mean less good, no?—like “semi” or “pseudo”?

To the contrary, the prefix means “more comprehensive; transcending,” as in, physics presupposes metaphysics. Without metaphysics, there can be no physics. Metaphysics gives us the tools we need to do science. Scientific method?  Metaphysics. Induction?  Metaphysics.  Causation?  Metaphysics. Unified theory of everything? You get the idea. Strictly speaking, natural selection is not a scientific theory.  It is a metaphysical theory presupposed by scientists in order to do evolutionary biology.  Evolutionary biology is great.  We have profited tremendously from it.  But we cannot fail to recognize the boundaries this brand of science, or try to re-label its metaphysical origin as science simply because we have grown so fond of it.

This leads to the question of why knowledge got to be so cloistered.  Why did metaphysics become branded as “religious,” and thus become such an unsavory—indeed, illegal—topic in our schools?  Does one think of Plato and Aristotle as “religious” instructors?  Certainly not.  There was a time when metaphysics could be freely discussed without so-called scientists ginning up insults about flying spaghetti monsters and Hegelian moon-monkeys and <a href= https://notesfrombabel.wordpress.com/2010/01/09/the-dawkins-delusion/>slimy custard men</a>.  But I get it.  Scientists like power and control as much as anyone.  You don’t get those Ph.D’s by correspondence, after all.  So if you can reduce the scope of all respectable inquiry into the bounds under the jurisdiction of your Ph.D, then you’ve made the one-eyed man’s journey to the land of the blind.

In this light, Ben Stein’s references to images of totalitarianism are not hard to explain.  Once a group uses bullying tactics and governmental force to win one debate, it’s hard to anticipate whether or why they’d ever stop.  And as government grows larger and larger, it becomes no alternative to say “exercise metaphysics in your own private sphere.”  What private sphere?  Where the average person’s wage comes from public employment, health care from government insurance, and schooling from government instructors, one is going to need a map and some goggles to find much of anything private.

This all gets to what folks such as those at the Discovery Institute have their alarm bells ringing about. Whatever you think about intelligent design, it is right to be bothered that science now thinks it can start injecting into classrooms such non-scientific fields as teleology and metaphysics. The notion that teachers could indoctrinate students about a “purposeless” universe guided by nothing is just as objectionable as if they were teaching a purposeful universe guided by something.  They are two sides of the same coin. The problem is we are dealing with a metaphysical “coin”: either way, preference is given to one side or the other in a science classroom when science proper has nothing to say about it. Present both sides in a confined discussion about metaphysics, or, if that makes scienceniks too nervous, forget the whole thing.  (Incidentally, I don’t see why more than a single lecture at the beginning of a biology class would be needed to give the basic contours of the debate.  It certainly doesn’t need to occupy an entire semester.  My high school class spent most of its time learning about cell innards and how plants eat sunshine and occasionally poking around inside some dead thing.  Not a lot of time left for zany discussions about how a purely naturalistic view of reality requires positing a “multiverse” with an infinite number of daughter universes of which ours is but one.  Science fiction and Star Trek were for after school.)

God should not be injected into science classrooms, but neither should science teachers extend the proper borders of their field. Science has moved beyond focusing on method and has traced its way back up to where it splits off from the rest of philosophy at the juncture of metaphysics and epistemology. Ironically, the intelligent design proponents who are holding ground at that crossroads defend not only metaphysics and religion, but science as well, refusing to let method- and certainty-oriented science trod upon the more nuanced and transcendental branches of the knowledge tree.

So, I urge you, E.D., do reconsider whether folks like Ben Stein truly deserve your ire.

Written by Tim Kowal

January 9, 2010 at 11:21 am

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

Science and the God-Shaped Void

with 3 comments

A friend and I were talking recently about the uneasy role our respective religions play in our secular American lives. Religious folks watch crude and profane movies and laugh along with everyone else. Atheism is just different strokes for different folks—no big deal, really, they just opted not to tick the God box. Is there any danger to religious Americans to make room in the public sphere for atheistic perspectives and values? Perhaps we can just do what we’ve done with commercialized Christmas: leave it be, just have to remember that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Perhaps a more secular culture is ok, so long as we keep in mind what it really means to hold to a religious worldview.

Easier said than done. We are not in a worldview-neutral culture. There is currently not a lot of reason to think about worldviews because, when it comes to much of the important stuff, we happen to believe the same things: individual liberty; human dignity; love of country; etc. But as we are starting to see, in the debates on gay marriage and stem cells, for example, there is increasing pressure to abandon vestiges of our religious worldviews unless they are supported by the atheistic worldview. That is, the morality that comes from old books and stodgy preachers no longer passes muster. Insert some bar graphs and control group data and then we’ll talk. Until then, no one wants to hear about your peccadilloes.

The problem with that is, properly speaking, there is no such thing as an “atheistic worldview.” Instead, we have atheist worldviews, as many, in fact, as there are atheists. This is because science, which serves as atheists’ de facto “god,” is value neutral. It governs only process, not ends. If you want to talk about ends, about truth, about first principles, we’re talking about metaphysics, the branch of study antecedent to science on the human knowledge tree.

To even the religious among us these days, science is the gold standard of truth. Labcoats are preferred to armchairs. No one wants to hear about metaphysics—the physics part sounds good, but this “meta” must mean less good, no?—like “semi” or “pseudo”? To the contrary, the prefix means “more comprehensive; transcending,” as in, physics presupposes metaphysics. Without metaphysics, there can be no physics. Metaphysics gives us the tools we need to do science. Scientific method? Metaphysics. Induction? Metaphysics. Causation? Metaphysics. Unified theory of everything? You guessed it, metaphysics. Natural selection is a scientific theory, but the theory is so ingenious that it entices otherwise sober minded scientists to go further. It has answered so many questions and unlocked so many doors that we forget that it all comes from the same field of study that provides the foundation for both science and theology: metaphysics.

That is what the folks at the Discovery Institute have their alarm bells ringing about. Whatever you think about intelligent design (and I don’t think a whole lot of it), they are right to be bothered that science now thinks it can start injecting non-scientific fields, such as teleology, into classrooms. The notion that teachers could indoctrinate students about a “purposeless” universe is just as objectionable as if they were teaching it did have a purpose. They are two sides of the same coin, with intelligent design proponents on one side, and natural selection proponents on the other. The problem is the coin: either way, preference is given to one side or the other in a science classroom when science proper has nothing to say about it. Present both sides in a confined discussion about metaphysics, or, if that makes the scienceniks too nervous, forget the whole thing.

God should not be injected into science classrooms, but neither should science teachers extend the proper borders of their field. Science has moved beyond focusing on method and has traced its way back up to where it splits off from the rest of philosophy at the juncture of metaphysics and epistemology. Ironically, the intelligent design proponents who are holding ground at that crossroads defend not only metaphysics and religion, but science as well, refusing to let method- and certainty-oriented science trod upon the more nuanced and transcendental branches of the knowledge tree.

We all have a religion. For some, it is science. It is not yet clear whether science or the science-ists will suffer the graver effects.

Empiricists Can Be Fanatical, Too

with 2 comments

Back when I was the editor of the Chapman Law Review, I signed off on the publication of an article on the issue of intelligent design. (The article, “Evolution, Science, And Ideology: Why The Establishment Clause Requires Neutrality in Science Classes,” by Stephen W. Trask, can be found online here.) Not surprisingly, the article found several critics (including this rebuttal article by fellow Chapman Law School alumnus Timothy Sandefur, published in the following issue of the Chapman Law Review).

Although shallow and ad hominem attacks abounded — including some lodged against me for having chosen to publish the article — what disappointed me, and still disappoints me, is that none of the responses to Mr. Trask’s article seriously addresses the epistemological concerns raised therein. I raised that lack of serious response in an earlier post at Ed Brayton’s site, although the discussion abruptly ended thereafter. (Even Tim Sandefur’s well-written response linked above fails to go much further down this tough philosophical road than to merely cite an anecdote by pop-atheist Richard Dawkins that “there are no postmodernists at 30,000 feet.” 11 Chap. L. Rev 129, 135 (2008). But as I had previously noted, usefulness is not the same thing as knowledge. The question is how we test whether things are useful, but how we can justify our claims to knowledge in them.)

Because I think it important to keep fanatical empiricsts’ feet to the fire on these crucial points, I am reposting it here….

I was the editor-in-chief of the Chapman Law Review, which published the paper that set off this cheery debate. One of the reasons we chose the article for publication is that it presented the vexing epistemological problem posited by Hume and Kant, and weaved it into the current debate on ID and the religion clauses. In hindsight, I would tread much more lightly into such hotly debated areas. Like any controversial work, some of the criticism is valid, and some is simply reactionary.

I took the author’s key premise to be that both science and religion require the adoption of some fundamental premises that are not subject to observation. This was the key problem submitted by Hume and which endures to this day. Trask argues in his paper that the problem basically puts science and religion on the same epistemological footing. The rest of his arguments take off from there. Love or hate that argument, it is a legitimate philosophical quandary. Ayn Rand and her followers have made light of the problem, but have done little to solve it, other than to set forth their own amalgamation of transcendental, empirically unjustifiable premises. Mixed with vitriol and indignation for good measure.

Most of the article’s critics seem to take the pragmatic approach. As I understand it, pragmatism basically takes the different systems of belief, including religious and scientific, and examines which is most practically useful. It then validates the one that provides the most useful information–which, of course, is science. Pragmatism, however, is not really epistemology, but a substitute for it. It simply redefines the term “truth.” Truth is no longer defined in the classical sense, as a logically necessary conclusion of undeniable premises. It is instead merely defined in terms of utility, and thus “truth” is recast as that which is most useful.

I doubt anyone will deny the utility of science. And that is not the subject of the paper. Recasting “truth” does not an epistemology make. Many serious philosophers are still concerned with the classical epistemological problems set off by Hume. Many folks are not, and are content with assuming the premises necessary to make science possible and proceeding with a utility-based definition of truth. So to those folks, this paper is, quite literally, written in a different language, and simply does not concern them. Ed Brayton, for example, says that “there is no such thing as a ‘scientific fact’, there are just facts.” This simply misunderstands (or ignores) the epistemic problem. A scientific worldview makes certain epistemic assumptions, such as whether impressions correspond with a physical reality, whether causal relationships exist and can be understood, whether we can expect the future to resemble the past, etc. Such premises, necessary to establishing “truth” and “knowledge,” are simply not observable, and thus cannot be explained other than by transcendental argumentation–that to make sense of anything, we must assume certain things to be true.

I do not mean to subject anyone to the convolutions of epistemological arguments. My point is that most of the criticisms against the article completely miss the point, because they fail to go toe to toe at the epistemological level. (Incidentally, I do not mean here to suggest any allegiance on my own part for or against the article or its arguments.) The criticisms instead simply assume the primacy of the scientific method for ascertaining knowledge, and then proceed to argue on the basis of that worldview. This is akin to arguing that Joe is lousy at baseball because Bob throws more touchdowns. Even the terms we use are meaningless until we are talking about the same game.

At bottom, whether or not you agree with the article, or find it persuasive, it was published because it made arguments that would stimulate thought on an important area of intellectual life. Despite Tim Sandefur’s suggestion that my colleagues and I should be “ashamed” for publishing the piece, I believe that the apparent failure to understand and confront directly the key epistemological issues it raised suggest the very reason that such articles must be published.