Going beyond the evidence

My theistically-inclined mate, Dale, has a a provocative little post on his blog fruitful faith. Well, provocative to me anyway, as we have often debated these sorts of issues related to how science is done – and how it is described.  It’s titled methodological indifference, critiques “methodological materialism,” and draws some conclusions with which I must disagree.

Here’s the guts of his argument:

It seems that many people (against the evidence) are under the impression that ‘science’ supports naturalism (All-is-Nature) more than it supports theism (Nature caused and sustained by Supernature). But if our scientific observations are to be truly objective, then we must admit that when we look at any particular thing or set of things (or any particular process or set of processes) in what we call the world, we do not find accompanying labels or name-tags that tell us “Made by YHWH” or “Purely Natural: No God Required”. One must go beyond the evidence (though not leaving it behind!) to make such statements. The theist knows she is doing this, though she will rightfully claim that she has followed reason in doing so. The naturalist, however, seems to not often admit that they ‘go beyond the evidence’ to their Naturalism. Why is this? Do they think the world screams “not made by any God at all”? If so, why?

The irrelevancy of natural/supernatural labels

Well, people who call themselves naturalists may believe science supports their world outlook. And theists or non-naturalists, may also think science supports their opposing world outlook. But most scientists (whatever their religious beliefs) just don’t give a stuff. They get on with investigating and attempting to understand reality.

And I don’t think terms like naturalism and supernaturalism are useful anyway. In fact dictionaries usually define them circularly – naturalism rejects the idea of supernatural things in the world while supernaturalism claims their is more than natural things in the world! Hardly helpful. No wonder scientists don’t start of their investigations by asking “Now, is this natural or supernatural?” That would be a complete waste of time. Again, most scientist wish that dogmatic ideologues, “naturalists” and “supernaturalists” alike, would just get out of the way and let them work.

Selective “name-tags”

Dale is quite correct – when we investigate reality we don’t find “name-tags that tell us “Made by YHWH” or “Purely Natural: No God Required”.” But really, perhaps there are more important name-tags we don’t find also. Like “conforms to Newtonian mechanics,” “Einsteinian relativity required here,” “best considered from a quantum mechanical viewpoint,” or “hint – consider astronomical events and their likely effects on species extinction.”

Of course “One must go beyond the evidence (though not leaving it behind!) to make such statements.” To develop any explanatory theory for our observations. That’s what science is about.

Now, Dale is presenting a very black and white picture of our investigators. They are either “theists” who “knows she is doing this (going beyond the evidence), though she will rightfully claim that she has followed reason in doing so, or “naturalist[s], [who] seem to not often admit that they ‘go beyond the evidence’ to their Naturalism.”

Why the hell didn’t he just differentiate between theists and non-theists? Why throw in this meaningless term “naturalist” which seems to be used in a pejorative sense like the use of “communist” in red-smearing?

And surely his “naturalists,” who don’t ‘go beyond the evidence’ (or don’t admit to doing so), are very funny people for scientists. What’s the point of collecting the evidence if we don’t go beyond it? Try to fit that evidence into an explanatory hypothesis? That’s what scientists do, surely. And they do it whatever their religious beliefs, theist and non-theist alike.

A close and continuing relationship with reality

But here’s the thing Dale missed. Scientists don’t just “go beyond the evidence” and stop their work when they have developed an explanatory hypothesis. Their work continues – they must test their hypotheses by comparing predictions with reality. And very often they well find their hypotheses to be wrong, or at least incomplete. This testing enables them to improve their hypothesis – or even ditch it and set to work developing a better explanation.

This close and continuing relationship with reality, with the evidence, is key to the modern scientific method. Now contrast that with a common theist approach which may use evidence like a drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination. Once the “my god did it” explanation is produced the evidence (or reality) has done its job. The desired conclusion has been “confirmed.”. There is no need or desire for testing or validating the conclusion.

An opportunist use of “evidence”

This opportunist use of evidence encourages cherry-picking (using only supporting evidence and ignoring the rest) or even falsification of evidence. Just look at how the so-called “fine-tuning” argument is used. The “fine-tuning” of physical constants is exaggerated or misinterpreted to justify the desired, and predetermined, conclusion – “their god did it” (see, for example, my posts Fine-tuning fallacies, Fiddling with “fine-tuning” and When the “best explanation” is the worst explanation).

I referred at the start to the confusing use of terms like supernatural and natural because of the circularity of their definition. And I mentioned that “naturalist” and “naturalism” are general used pejoratively. But I am forced to somehow interpret these terms when they are used by people like Dale.

Perhaps it is the the attitude to evidence, rather than vaguely defined “nature” and “supernature,” which differentiates the “naturalist” from the “non-naturalist” or theist? Perhaps the “naturalist” is the one with a close and continuing relationship with reality. Who tests and validates their explanatory ideas against reality. And the “non-naturalist” has the opportunist relationship to reality – using evidence like a drunk uses a lamppost. For support rather than illumination.

I think that’s how I will interpret these terms in the future. Makes everything so much clearer.

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11 responses to “Going beyond the evidence

  1. Brilliant response.

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  2. …we do not find accompanying labels or name-tags that tell us “Made by YHWH” or “Purely Natural: No God Required”. One must go beyond the evidence (though not leaving it behind!) to make such statements.

    True but it also applies to witches and pixies and Superman and sweaty magic football socks.
    Let’s try it shall we?
    Yes, we shall.

    “…we do not find accompanying labels or name-tags that tell us “Made by witches” or “Purely Natural: No Superman or sweaty magic football sock Required”. One must go beyond the evidence (though not leaving it behind!) to make such statements.”

    Well, gosh. It works just fine! Whodathunk?

    The theist knows she is doing this, though she will rightfully claim that she has followed reason in doing so.

    The pixieist also knows this. As does the Superman fan…and the sweaty magic football sockist.
    (shrug)

    The naturalist…

    The what?

    The naturalist, however, seems to not often admit that they ‘go beyond the evidence’ to their Naturalism. Why is this? Do they think the world screams “not made by any God at all”? If so, why?

    Oh Dale, Dale, Dale.
    (…shakes head sadly…)

    The answer is “No”.
    It’s really simple.
    You don’t go around thinking that the world screams “not made by pixies” and neither do we. It’s not something that we waste time thinking about.
    You don’t go around thinking that the world screams “not made by Superman” and neither do we.
    That may come as a shock but there you go.
    You don’t go around thinking that the world screams “not made by Bigfoot or the sweaty magic football sock” and neither do we.
    Yet for your brand-name magical man in the sky (geographically based)…you make an unreasonable exception.
    To roughly paraphrase Stephen F Roberts…

    “I contend we do the same thing when we investigate reality, I just believe in one fewer fantasy figure than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other magical thingys as makers of a rock or flower or whatever, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

    The Idiot Theist – The Atheist Experience 776

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  3. Pingback: Robert JR Graham » The Supernatural

  4. Can’t stay long, but all I’ll say is a) I’m ‘honoured’ to have provided a post ‘provocative’ enough to warrant a blog-reply of it’s own, and b) despite our significant agreement on protecting science, I continue to be amazed at how quickly you take offense to the term ‘naturalist’, a term or ‘label’ that many a naturalist is happy to wear. Philosophical naturalism (PN), y’know? It’s not being pejorative to refer one someone who holds a different view, is it? and PN is a view. Molehills, mountains and all that :) I keep saying it, but next time you’re in Auckland, Ken… :)

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  5. Re the term “naturalist’ – I usually make clear that this is my position. A number of people do claim a “naturalist” outlook – and they are welcome to do so. Of course, the rest of us have the right to request other people don’t go using names for us which could well be inappropriate. And I am not the only person critical of the whole “naturalist” concept.

    The name is not inherent in science – we don’t approach reality by making any assumption about reality except that it is worth investigating. And it misrepresents science and scientists to claim that we do.

    In your piece you did use the term pejoratively – look at:

    ” The theist knows she is doing this, though she will rightfully claim that she has followed reason in doing so. The naturalist, however, seems to not often admit that they ‘go beyond the evidence’ to their Naturalism.”

    Of course, that is the problem with labels, the user loads them with their own prejudices. Best to keep away from completely.

    It’s notable that the term is used mainly by religious apologists and very rarely for self description (An exception is the Brights – and I have criticised them for that). No accident as the supernatural/natural terms are not easily or well defined. Even the recent workshop “moving Naturalism Forward’ which brought together a number of non-theist philosophers and scientists, could not adequately define the terms. They acknowledged the circularity of the definitions.

    Whenever I see the term used in all honesty the only meaning I can give it, as I said, is:

    “Perhaps the “naturalist” is the one with a close and continuing relationship with reality. Who tests and validates their explanatory ideas against reality. “

    I would welcome you comment on that.

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  6. Well it’s exactly about our desire to understand ‘reality’ isn’t it? Where are the ‘edges’ of reality? For the non-theistically inclined, are they conveniently at the same place as the ‘edge’ of Nature? Or for the theistically inclined, is the edge of reality at the furthest ‘edge’ of God!? :) One thing we agree on is that science (and I’m arguing ‘the evidence’ as well) has too long been used as a weapon in theist/atheist debates. I say let’s keep physics and metaphysics distinct, and I hear you saying the same thing in that scientists can all do their work no matter what their beliefs about where the edge of “reality” is.

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  7. That’s the thing, Dale. Who the hell says that there are “edges” to reality and how the hell could they possibly know? It’s silly and presumptuous to even talk about such things.

    Similarly, why talk about “nature” instead of reality – that is laden with a huge amount of unwarranted assumption.

    Science investigates reality without imposing unwarranted ideological prejudice on reality. (Although of course real people inevitably are influenced by their ideologies, culture, etc.) Conflict arises when outsiders come along and tell us there are “edges,” areas where science cannot or should not be allowed to go. No scientist worth her salt is going to ordered around this way – it is just not objective to assume “edges” or knowledge about regions inaccessible to science when clearly there isn’t any such knowledge.

    Science gets used in all sorts of debates because it is the most reliable way we have of investigating and understanding reality. To the extent that ideological groups make different claims about reality then surely science must become part of the debate. To not use science in such cases is not to be honest.

    When it comes to doing science the religious belief of the scientist is, or should be, irrelevant. We should be deriving our ideas from reality (and validating against reality) not attempting to impose them on reality. In my experience this is largely true – but there are some really horrible exceptions (eg creationists) where the ideological prejudice can destroy the scientific impulse.

    The “keeping physics and metaphysics separate” argument shouldn’t be aimed at working scientists (as you sort of acknowledge). But have a look at the crap broadcast on the Fist Light channel and you can see blatant examples of where “metaphysics” is imposed on “physics.” That’s where criticism should be aimed.

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  8. I actually agree with you Ken. The question about the ‘edges’ of reality (or ‘nature’) are wholly philosophical in nature, rather than scientific. Scientists, as you say, certainly don’t need anyone to tell them ‘you can’t look there, that’s over the line/edge…’, etc.

    So really I’m thinking about two unfortunate things you see/hear that ought not be:

    a) philosophical/religious ideology being mis-used to obstruct science…
    b) science (or rather distortions of it) being used to ‘counter’ or ‘disprove’ philosophical ideas or religious beliefs.

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  9. I agree with you about a, Dale, and it is not hard to find examples. In history and, unfortunately, even today.

    But b? Perhaps you can provide examples to underline your meaning. For myself I see human knowledge as extremely dynamic and the improvements in evidence and understanding continually leading to “countering” or “disproving” elements of our previous knowledge. This happens all the time in science even though it is empirically based much of the time – because it is empirically based. So it’s understandable that it will happen with respect to older knowledge and concepts embodied in what is considered philosophy or religion.

    As within science the improvement of our knowledge and understanding can only be a good thing, surely the “countering” or “disproving” of less than adequate knowledge in philosophy and religion must also be a good thing.

    But perhaps you can provide real life examples which you think show this not to be a good thing?

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  10. Well, it’s also unfortunate how science (or rather distortions of it) being used to ‘counter’ or ‘disprove’ magical beliefs.
    Well it’s exactly about our desire to understand ‘reality’ isn’t it? Where are the ‘edges’ of reality? For the non-magically inclined, are they conveniently at the same place as the ‘edge’ of Nature? Or for the magically inclined, is the edge of reality at the furthest ‘edge’ of um…magic? One thing we agree on is that science (and I’m arguing ‘the evidence’ as well) has too long been used as a weapon in magic/this-magic-business-sounds-like-waffly-bullshit-to-me debates. I say let’s keep physics and magic distinct.

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