Science and the “supernatural”

I have discussed the issue of “supernaturalism” and science before but return to it having just read  Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?  by Dr  Yonatan I. Fishman. It’s an excellent paper which I recommend you read as it may challenge some of your ideas. You can download the full text here.

The non-overlapping magisteria argument

Dr Fishman takes issue with the idea that science can say nothing about the “supernatural,” or be used to evaluate “supernatural” claims. This argument has often been used by opponents of science, eg. the theologically motivated  who argue that science is too restrictive, that it should be “opened up” to “supernatural” explanations.

But it has also been used by those defending science from such religious intrusions. As Fishman says this position argues:

 “that science, by definition, is limited to studying phenomena of the natural world and hence can neither confirm nor deny supernatural claims. Thus, science is necessarily mute on the question of whether or not supernatural phenomena exist. Consequently, to the extent that religion involves supernatural entities or phenomena, there can be no conflict between scientific claims and religious claims.”

On the one hand opponents argue this is a limitation that should be removed from science. On the other hand defenders of science concede the limitation and argue that this enables science and religion to coexist harmoniously – provided they keep to their own “magisteria.” They put a lot of weight on their claim that science only deals with the “natural” world.

The latter approach was implicit in Stephen J. Gould‘s description of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) in his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (see Overlapping Magisteria?). An approach supported by many, but not all by any means,  scientists, philosophers of science , religious philosophers and theologians. For example Fishman refers to statements of position by two prominent US scientific institutions, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). And the arguments against intelligent design (ID) presented by supporters of science, like philosopher Barbara Forrest, at the Kitzmiller vs Dover trial. This approach was incorporated into the judgement from this trial which is often quoted by supporters of science.

But the same argument (the inability of science to accommodate the supernatural) is used by opponents of science to discredit scientific ideas and campaign for reincorporation of theological ideas into science. This is a common argument of supporters of ID (see the Wedge document or Intelligent design/creationism III: The religious agenda for a clear example), conservative Christians and many theologians/philosophers of religion.

The latter groups will often use “arguments from authority”, quoting cherry-picked “secular” or “naturalist” philosophers of science  to support their attacks on science and its findings. I believe this makes the use of this “limits of science” argument by supporters of science doubly faulty because it feeds the opponents of science.

The scientific method

Fishman rejects the thesis that science is unable to investigate “supernatural” claims. After all, those advancing “supernatural” phenomena claim these are real – and science investigates reality. The scientific method is ideal for this because:

“if an entity, phenomenon, or effect exists, it is detectable in some way. Either its existence is directly observable or its existence is not directly observable but it causes effects or implies consequences which are directly observable (such as the track made by a subatomic particle in a bubble chamber).”

Proponents of the “supernatural” open up their claims to scientific investigation because:

“In general, most believers hold that gods, spirits, and paranormal phenomena have real effects on the world and on their lives. These effects should be testable by the methods of science. Indeed, many supernatural and paranormal claims have already been investigated by scientists, often at the behest of those intending to validate the supernatural.”

He mentions as examples the effects of intercessory prayer on patient outcomes, paranormal or “psi” phenomena, astrology and the so-called “Bible Code” prophecies.

“If these hypotheses can legitimately be examined by science, then there is no principled reason why other supernatural claims cannot be so examined as well.”

Surely this has implications for how we present the scientific method. And the argument “that science, by definition, is limited to studying phenomena of the natural world and hence can neither confirm nor deny supernatural claims” appears disingenuous.

And hasn’t science, throughout its history been doing this. Investigating phenomena which have in previous times been seen as “supernatural” and which we now consider “natural:”

“the history of science has been characterized by the progressive ‘naturalization of the world’, providing non-supernatural alternative explanations for phenomena that were once thought to be explicable only by appeal to supernatural agents.”

In my experience no scientist ever asks herself if phenomena are “supernatural” or not before undertaking an investigation. The question of pursuing investigation of phenomena revolves more around funding, difficulty, availability of equipment and expertise, etc. Not around a “supernatural”/”natural” judgement. (And how can such a judgement be made at the beginning of an investigation, anyway).

Demands for special treatment

The real problem with “supernatural” claims in science is that their advocates very often demand special treatment. They are not looking for their claims to be tested – just accepted purely on the basis of logical possibility. Or they reject scientific findings with arguments like “science has not yet caught up with homeopathy!”

In fact the usual argument of the proponents of “supernatural” claims is to attempt to discredit existing so-called “naturalist” theories and then argue their alternative “supernatural” ideas should be accept as the default (or fallback) position – no testing required. They assure us their claims are “logically sound.” That seems to be the inevitable mode of argument used by proponents of creationism/ID.

But:

“mere logical possibility is not sufficient. As Kelly Smith notes, “If we accept the mere possibility of an alternative explanation [i.e., supernatural creationism] as sufficient grounds to abandon an hypothesis [i.e., naturalistic evolution], we will never commit to any hypothesis whatsoever, because the alternatives to be ruled out are limited only by our imaginations.”

True, there have been areas science has avoided in the past – like origins of morality, the nature of consciousness, etc. But these are no longer taboo. And I think we are no longer fooled by the idea that such difficult subjects should be handed over to theology.

Scientists are quite happy to acknowledge that a pehomena may, at this stage, be inexplainable. That some things, in the end, may even be beyond human ability to understand or explain. Human may not have, may never have, the required technological, congitive or reasoning skills. But such arguments should never be used to justify, by default, hypotheses or explanations which rely on wishful thinking rather than evidence.

Implications for science education

I agree that the popular NOMA argument and exclusion of the “supernatural” from science misrepresents the way we do science. And it should not be used to dictate the way we teach science.

The data so far. Credit: xkcd (http://xkcd.com/)

It is really only a political tactic – used either by supporters  to defend science against theological intrusions or by opponents to demand theological influence in science.

Scientists should not resort to such an opportunist, and incorrect, argument in their defense against current theological attacks. As Fishman says:

“rejection of the supernatural is not a priori, it is not declared ‘before examining the facts.’ It comes only from a scientific investigation of the evidence  . . . .

ID should not be dismissed on the grounds that it is unscientific; ID should be dismissed on the grounds that the empirical evidence for its claims just isn’t there.”

Fishman discusses the implications and challenges of this issue for science education. It is important that science should “pursue truth, regardless of religious or political sensitivities.” But “science educators face the challenge of maintaining both intellectual integrity and the receptivity of students to potentially controversial scientific material.”

They may be assisted by “presenting a historical perspective on science to provide a framework for understanding how science has arrived at its currently accepted theories about the world.” But honesty and good factual information are important.

“It is clear that teaching critical thinking skills in addition to factual information will not only foster scientific literacy, but may have far reaching beneficial consequences for how students conduct their daily lives and for a society all too often enticed by the paranormal and deceived by potentially dangerous pseudoscientific claims. By fostering critical thinking and a scientific frame of mind there is an increased likelihood that students will adopt a skeptical attitude toward supernatural claims in light of the scientific evidence against them. Importantly, critical thinking and a scientific approach to claims are not just for scientists and debunkers of the supernatural. A well-informed population proficient in critical thinking will be better equipped to make intelligent decisions concerning crucial political issues of our day, such as global warming and governmental foreign policy. Indeed, an intellectually honest engagement with reality is a prerequisite for promoting the long-term interest of individuals and society at large.”

Conclusions

These few sentences seem to sum things up from the point of view of education:

“Given that science does have implications concerning the probable truth of supernatural worldviews, claims should not be excluded a priori from science education simply because they might be characterized as supernatural, paranormal, or religious. Rather, claims should be excluded from science education when the evidence does not support them, regardless of whether they are designated as ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’.”

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16 responses to “Science and the “supernatural”

  1. I wrote a post on this subject a couple of weeks back because I smile an amused smile every time I hear or see somebody say that science cannot investigate the supernatural.

    If you can experience something, that something happens or exists in the physical world and that’s what science is good for:

    “The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”

    If people weren’t so dead set on selling fairytales as truth then science wouldn’t be coming around and ruining good stories with facts.

  2. “If you can’t accept your mistaken, your not doing it at all.”
    It would appear that all sides of the God question and history itself have it wrong! The first wholly new interpretation of the moral teachings of Christ for two thousand years is spreading on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from history, this new ‘claim’ is predicated upon a precise and predefined experience, a direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power to confirm divine will, command and covenant, “correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries.” Like it of no, a new religious claim testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment, evidential criteria now exists.

    Nothing short of a religious revolution appears to be getting under way. I’m testing the material now myself and there is nothing stopping anyone doing the same except whatever preconceived prejudices their holding inside their head!

    More info at http://soulgineering.com/2011/05/22/the-final-freedoms/

  3. “a new religious claim testable by faith.”

    Yeah, right! Pull the other one!

  4. I think that’s flat out spam. And abject stupidity. Which is what most spam turns out to be in the end.

  5. When ever a change of paradigm takes place, it forces one to examine their preconceived notions and prejudices and if they are unwilling to do so, they lose all claim to being rational. Testable proof trumps all opinion. And now one exists on the greatest question of all. I also have the advantage of having testing the teaching out myself and it is and does exactly what it claims to do. And I thought this site was about opening the mind!

  6. Goliah, “testing” by faith is evidence of a closed mind. As is the meaningless bafflegab you have presented.

  7. If testing for the truth of a claim, when the means to do so exists, is evidence of a closed mind then all of science similarly reflects a closed mind. While I the iconoclastic nature of what getting started may be difficult for many, the whole of history has presumed such proof doesn’t exist, it will only be a matter of time before sufficient numbers of individuals like myself, test and confirm the claim, to make for a new irrefutable fact. No doubt, both those who have spent their lives with a religious tradition and those who have bought into the current atheist fashion will be unlikely to make the time to study this material, much less test it for them selves.

    But at a time when the world is slipping towards it’s own self made hell, The tragedy for our species will be if existing religion and theology, skepticism and atheism have all so corrupted and discredited the very idea of God, for humanity to re-imagine, discover and experience just how great this potential is? http://www.energon.org.uk

  8. Goliah, you are not being honest. Testing against faith is not testing. It’s preserving prejudice. It’s an oxymoron.

    Science tests against reality – and leads to elimination of preconceived ideas or faith.

    You have not even presented an intelligible claim, let alone any testing of it.

    That’s why I call your comments bafflegab. They are meaningless.

  9. Ken you keep arguing against the old reality, unable to comprehend or acknowledge that some new and profound is taking place. I am being completely honest as I have already studied and successfully tested the teaching which you have not even taken the time to read. You have no grounds for even a valid opinion so long as you remain thus uninformed. You are the one preserving prejudice. And the test is not against faith, but the search for a new moral conception and insight into the human condition, to be realized by faith. While there is no space here to present the entire ‘claim’ in detail that material can be downloaded for free from the links given.

    While those holding a ‘faith’ in any existing monotheistic traditions will dislike staring into their own theological abyss, having a new religious conception which conforms precisely to the model of Enlightenment scrutiny, allows that ideal to holds the final trump against all manner of religious and spiritual nonsense.

    As always the greatest intellectual dishonesty is to take pot shots at the messenger before even reading the message! And that you call that rational? Self evidently your ‘parachute’ has failed, I hope you have a reserve? But for those individuals who can shake off their existing prejudices, imagine outside the cultural box of history, stand against the stream of fashionable thought and spin, who have the moral courage to learn something new and will TEST this revelation for themselves, an intellectual and moral revolution is already under way, where the ‘impossible’ becomes inevitable, by the most potent, political, Non Violent Direct Action any human being can take to advance peace, justice, change and progress. To test or not to test that is the question, and the new measure of faith?

  10. You don’t understand.
    Ken does not argue against the old reality but rather against inner being.
    Everything is new and profound and it has already taken place. You are too late. I am being economical with the truth as I have already listened and half-understood the opinions which you have not even taken the time to mimic. A valid opinion is good but not so good if you are uninformed yet you probably knew that already. Don’t restrain your inner child. Seek not faith, but accept the reformed human condition, to be realized by ‘faith’. Time is short but the internet is long. ‘Belief’ can be held in the palm of a baby’s hand as long as any existing monotheistic traditions will allow it to be so. The time is now for new religious conceptions which conform precisely to the models of Victorian sensibilities, concepts that will shout “SNAP” in the poker game of life.
    Woe be unto those that do not heed my comments on blogs. For blessed are the cheesemakers. How dare you suggest that you are mimzy as a borogrove? Your hovercraft is full of eels and your mother smells of elderberries. Yet there are those brave souls that will lets fall the shackles of slavery and not go with the pod people but rather sit up straight and have buttered scones for tea. They will be ready to SPANK themselves or provide leather accessories for those to have it done to them. What was once impossible will now become mega-possible in the shadow of the lamb lying down with the lion. Is that not the faith of the petting zoo?

  11. “Seek not faith, but accept the reformed human
    condition, to be realized by ‘faith’.” This is exactly what I am speaking of! But you must define ‘reformed’. At this point in history, it should be obvious that our human condition, whatever it’s aspirations may be, is severely lacking in any sustainable values or if they do exist in some small way are certainly not dominant within any culture. The environment is being destroyed, war and conflict remain staples of political process, extremes of rich and poor are greater than ever. On what grounds do you say any human being is reformed? Without sustainability, what is moral or spiritual but illusion? And what choices exist between any religious, intellectual or political tradition when like a ‘slow reckoning’ the planet’s very capacity to sustain human existence is under threat? Where is your reform then?

    The reform I am speaking of is very clear. It is predicated upon a precise and predefined experience of Omnipotent, power to confirm Divine will, command and covenant. An experience in which the reality of God responds directly to an act of perfect faith with a direct, with an individual intervention into the natural world, infusing insight to the soul and principle on the heart, correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries. In short this changes or ‘reforms’ human nature itself and points the mind towards all things sustainable.

    This is religion without any of the conventional embellished trappings of tradition. An individual, spiritual/virtue/ethical conception, independent of all cultural perception; contained within a single moral command and single Law that finds it’s expression of obedience within a new covenant of marriage. It requires no institutional framework or hierarchy, churches or priest craft, no scholastic theological rational, dogma or doctrine, no ones permission and stripped of all theological myth, ‘worship’ requires only conviction, the self discipline and faith necessary to accomplish a new, single, moral, imperative and the fidelity to the new Divinely created reality.

  12. goliah:

    Step one: pull your head out of your arse
    Step two: stop smoking opium
    Step three: wait 6 months

    Or

    Start taking your Zoloft and Zyprexa again.

    You’re either high or have a severe mental problem. Thought, it just occurred to me that there might be a third option: you’re just plain stupid. Unfortunately, science hasn’t provided an easy solution to stupidity. Please accept my sincere condolences.

  13. “a new religious claim testable by faith”

    “I have already studied and successfully tested the teaching”

    “And the test is not against faith, but the search for a new moral conception and insight into the human condition, to be realized by faith.”

    “there is no space here to present the entire ‘claim’ in detail “

    You haven’t bothered presenting anything, goliah, – just meaningless bafflegab. And as these quote show, self contradictory rubbish.

    Not interested!

  14. Rosmary LYNDALL WEMM

    Goliah’s ramblings sound like the kind of deliberately specious nonsense that Erikson-trained hypnotists use to put unsuspecting patients into a trance state.

    It also reads like Hubbard’s Scientology text book. It is all grammatically correct and there is a strong illusion of meaningful content but nothing that can really be grasped and pulled together into anything that is consecutively logical.

    Now that I think about it, I recall hearing this type of speech often during my career in the mental health field. The verbal content has strong similarities with the disturbed stream of consciousness that I emanates from hospitalized mental patients during a psychotic break. The patients sincerely believe that what they are saying is profound but it is actually meaningless nonsense to all listeners who are not mentally deficient or equally disturbed.

    I recall a usually highly logical and intelligent mathematics teacher valiantly trying to convince the patients and health professionals on the ward that she could now prove that one equals zero. She was indignant that no-one seemed to understand or appreciate the enlightened thoughts that she was trying to impress upon her audience. Even the other psychotic patients weren’t buying it.

    No sane and intelligent reader can take anything that Goliah is currently saying seriously. Ergo, Goliah is either mentally disturbed or deficient – or both. Perhaps things will change once his anti-psychotic medication kicks in – if he has access to it and if he can then be persuaded to take it. Once this happens he could well deny that he ever wrote any the stuff that appears against his name on these pages. The mathematics teacher could not recall her extraordinary numerical profundity after her psychotic state was dissipated by medication. At this point she had difficulty believing that she ever voiced what the doctors told her she had been saying. At this point, she dismissed the ideas as “ridiculous nonsense.”

    I commend Cedric Katsby’s hilarious parody. I especially liked the Jabberwocky reference. In fact, I think we should henceforth label this kind of gyre and gimble speech: Frumious Jabberwocky. http://www.jabberwocky.com/carroll/jabber/jabberwocky.html

    Of course, if Katsby can do it, so could other clever people. There is always the possibility that Goliah is just an ingenious faker.

  15. goliah = Poe’s Law

    The first wholly new interpretation of the moral teachings of Christ for two thousand years is spreading on the web.

    Jesus taught that he was the main character in the Old Testament. No new interpretation is possible; either those two characters are identical, or they aren’t.

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