Bringing the supernatural into science

Modern science is often attacked. Despite its obvious benefits to humanity there are many in today’s society who wish to undermine or discredit science. They talk about the “limits of science” as if we were investigating things we shouldn’t. An example is the claim that it’s OK for science to investigate how matter behaves but the question of how matter arose should be left to philosophy and religion. They assert there is a conspiracy by the science “establishment” to control research and to limit scientific explanations. They claim the naturalism of science is too limiting and call for a new “scientific paradigm” which is not limited to the natural. Religious opponents of evolutionary theory are one organised source of these attacks. But attacks also come from others with superstitious beliefs or those trying to advance supernatural explanations and ideas. You can understand their motivation. Frustrated because science does not support, or even disproves, their most cherished beliefs they blame the scientific method, rather than their belief. It’s logical, then, for them to wish to expand the meaning of science to somehow include their belief and then be able to claim that these beliefs are supported by “science.”

Scientific materialism

Claims of methodological limits in science, of “scientific materialism”, resonate with some people because of the negative connotations of the word “materialism” as popularly used. But what does it mean when applied to scientific method? The US National Academy of Science states that science is limited to empirical, observable and ultimately testable data: “Science is a particular way of knowing about the world. In science, explanations are restricted to those that can be inferred from the confirmable data – the results obtained through observation and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists. Anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation. Explanations that cannot be based upon empirical evidence are not part of science.”

Of course, this says nothing about the religious or philosophical beliefs of the investigator. Their philosophy may not be “materialist” but in their investigations their method is naturalist or materialist because they gain evidence through observation and experiment and their explanations are inferred from confirmable data. In my own career I worked with other scientists who were Christian, atheist, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim or held other beliefs I was unaware of. We used the same natural or materialist method without any problem. Our religious beliefs were never an issue because they were not part of our method.

This is only natural. Working scientists don’t ask: “Is this a natural phenomenon?” or “Is this a supernatural explanation?” But they do consider: “How can I interact with this phenomenon? How can I investigate it?” and “How can I test this hypothesis? How can I validate this theory?” They do not accept an untested or untestable theory, whatever its source.

Importing the supernatural

How would you expand the “scientific paradigm” to include the supernatural? The opponents of scientific materialism and naturalism never explain this so I can only speculate. I see two ways.

1: Investigating the supernatural. But can that have any meaning. For us to examine an object or phenomena it must exist. If it exists it is natural, part of the real world. Thus it has its own order and logic and is potentially able to be examined and understood. Phenomena we now see as natural were often in the past seen as “supernatural” because they weren’t understood (consider the ancient attitude to thunder and lightning). There is no logic today in labelling the unknown as “supernatural.” There may well be a need to check if a claimed event or phenomena occurred or is real (telekinesis, mind-reading and “miracles” for example). But once corroborated it should be considered natural and (in principle) open to investigation.

2: Supernatural explanations. I suspect this is the real aim of the “new scientific paradigm.” In reality this would mean accepting untestable explanations based on scriptural or personal authority. That would be a real “science stopper” as once you abandon testability there is no reason to do any more work. We always have an explanation (“God did it,” “ghosts are responsible”, “it’s caused by your personal ‘energy vibrations'” etc.). The advantage of saying “we don’t know” or “we can’t explain it” is that we can always add “but let’s find out,” “let’s investigate this further.” Supernatural explanations don’t allow this and are, in fact, no explanations at all. See Isaac Newton and intelligent design for an example of how Isaac Newton made this mistake.

Intelligent design strategy

The most organised groups trying to import the supernatural into science (and the rest of society) are the proponents of intelligent design. Organised around the Discovery institute and Center for Science and Culture they have made their goals clear in many writings and in their “Wedge Strategy”. However, their ideas are negative, continually ranting against “scientific materialism” but never describing how their expanded “scientific paradigm” would work in practice. Clearly though, in their case they wish to return to pre-enlightenment times and reintroduce a supernatural deity as an explanation for any unexplained phenomena. They extend this to even explained phenomena. The Discovery Institute apparently requires all its Fellows to review current scientific findings and actively promote alternative theistic explanations for them.

In essence the proposal to import the “supernatural” into science is an attack on science. An attempt to reject methodological naturalism which is the real source of the power of modern science.

See also:
Darwin or Design – Audio Interviews mainly opponents of evolution but a good example of anti-science attitudes.

Related Articles:
Does science involve faith?
Faith – against all evidence
Intelligent design – a war on science
Most ideas in science are wrong!
Isaac Newton and intelligent design
Limits of science, limits of religion
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Intelligent design/creationism: Postscript

One response to “Bringing the supernatural into science

  1. Do you think that part of the problem is that not many people actually understand the difference between the scientific method and the applications of the technology that comes from science?

    Like

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