Scientific method and the “supernatural”

This is a repeat of a post from over 2 years ago:

Richard Dawkins TV series Enemies of Reason has caused some discussion about the relationship of science to the supernatural. This also comes up in discussions of the nature of science, the science/religion conflict and the motivation behind intelligent design and creationism. Some of the terms used in this discussion can mean different things to different people, so it’s worth starting with some dictionary definitions.

Natural: existing in, produced by nature; not supernatural or strange; based on the principles and findings of human reason rather than on revelation.

Supernatural: of or relating to things that cannot be explained according to natural laws; of or caused as if by a god, miraculous.

Material: that which makes up reality; one of two modes of existence, the other being mind.

Materialist: the doctrine that matter is the only reality and that the mind, the emotions, etc., are merely functions of it.

Scientific method

Describing phenomena as natural or material has the same meaning. I think its worth adding that from a scientific viewpoint natural/material phenomena have objective existence (exist independently of the observing consciousness), have an internal order and are capable of interaction. This means that they are capable of being investigated and (potentially) known or understood.

Science investigates, seeks to understand, natural or material phenomena. If supernatural or non-material phenomena exist, if there is a non-material reality, it is outside the domain of science. This is why religious scientists can happily investigate the natural/materia world but still claim a belief in a god which cannot be investigated scientifically because it is supernatural, outside the natural/material world.

This is sensible because, by definition, only the natural/material world can be investigated. To say we could investigate a supernatural, non-material, phenomena would mean that we understand it to have objective existence, some implicit order and be capable of interaction. That would bring it into the natural, material, sphere.

This is why the scientific method is often described as methodological naturalism or methodological materialism. The materialism describes the methods, not the philosophical outlook of the investigator. So it doesn’t matter if the scientist is a philosophical materialist (non-theist for example) or a philosophical idealist (a theist for example) she will be happy to use the scientific method.

Revelation instead of investigation

The problem with proponents of intelligent design is that they demand that scientists abandon this methodology, they in fact attribute all the ills of the world to “scientific materialism.” However, abandonment of methodological naturalism would remove all objectivity from science (see cartoon, right). We would no longer be able to use empirical evidence and testability, reason and peer review. This would be replaced by revelation and authority. True scientific investigation of the origins of the universe and life would be replaced by the bronze-age myth of the Bible.

Even when opponents of methodological naturalism don’t appeal to religious scripture they can still attempt to undermine science by “ring-fencing” some areas. They can declare that some areas such as the origin of life, origin of species, origin of the universe, the mind and consciousness, cannot be investigated using the scientific method. However, they do not offer any rational alternative method. This is of course a “science stopper,” an appeal to ignorance rather than enlightenment.

Mano Singham discusses this more eloquently, and in more detail, in a his recent post What do creationist/ID advocates want-III?

How do you decide what is “supernatural”

Considering the difficult problems science investigates it is easy to define some areas as beyond science, outside the scientific domain. Some problems, such as the first seconds of the formation of the universe, may well be beyond our current technology. But that doesn’t mean that the phenomena involved are not material, capable of (in principle) being investigated and understood. We have learned from past mistakes that such phenomena shouldn’t be ruled as being beyond scientific investigation. Consider, for example, the statement, 150 years ago, of the French Philosopher Auguste Comte 1about stars:

“We shall never be able to study, by any method, their chemical composition or their mineralogical structure … Our positive knowledge of stars is necessarily limited to their geometric and mechanical phenomena”

Within a few years the invention of spectrometry proved him wrong!

As a philosophical materialist, an atheist, I believe that reality does not have a supernatural component, although I appreciate that others will believe differently. In practice though, how does one decide that a phenomenon is supernatural, outside the possibility of investigation? It seems to me that the lessons of history indicate that nothing should be exempt from rational investigation. We should never decide that a phenomena is supernatural until it has been thoroughly investigated as a material, natural phenomenon. And we should not use our current limited technology and understanding as an excuse to judge a phenomenon as supernatural – after all that was the approach taken by primitive humans attempting to explain climatic phenomena. We should know better.

For me, the attitude of, Cicero (expressed three centuries ago in De Divinatione), should guide our investigations today:

“For nothing can happen without cause; nothing happens that cannot happen, and when what was capable of happening has happened, it may not be interpreted as a miracle. Consequently there are no miracles. We therefore draw this conclusion: what was incapable of happening never happened and what was capable of happening is not a miracle.”

Related Articles:
Questions science cannot answer?
Debating science and religion
Solution to climate change?
Putting Dawkins in his place
Limits of science or religious “fog”?
Can science enrich faith?
Miracles and the supernatural?
Should we teach creationism?
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Intelligent design/creationism I: What is scientific knowledge?
Intelligent design/creationism II: Is it scientific?
Intelligent design/creationism III: The religious agenda
Intelligent design/creationism IV: The religion – science conflict
Intelligent design/creationism: Postscript
Richard Dawkins and the enemies of reason
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Limits of science, limits of religion



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