Friday, September 23, 2016

Playing by the Rules

It must be difficult for a Christian trying to make sense of a world where literally any outcome is possible.  If God can decide to overrule the laws of nature at his whim, then how can we ever know that things will behave in a predictable manner?  How can we even say that there are laws of nature?  And what is the value of science?

In the Christian world, God's intervention is more than just a rarity.  It happens all the time.  What Christian denies the existence of miracles?  It's not just the astounding feats performed by Jesus.  It's little things that happen every day.  It's changing the natural course of events in response to prayers.  It's God's guiding the entire course of natural history, from the creation of the universe, to the deliberate and careful steering of events over a span of billions of years that would eventually result in the evolution of mankind.  In the Christian world, every biological creature is designed, and every beautiful sunset was made specifically for our benefit.  In other words, the course of natural events is governed by the dictates of God - not by some set of impersonal and meaningless laws.  The laws of nature are, at best, merely rules of thumb.

I've been trying to make sense of Victor Reppert's post called Evidence, Design, and Alternative Histories of Science, where he makes the assertion that the outcome of scientific investigation could have been very different, much like human history could have been drastically changed if only some particular event had happened differently.  "What if John Wilkes booth had missed?"  A whole alternative historical reality would have followed.  And what if evolutionary scientists had not decided that the evidence indicates a lack of design in biology?  By Victor's reasoning, the history of biological science (or perhaps all of science) could have turned out very differently.

He then laments inevitable dismissal of such an outcome by the scientific community:
But if this alternative history had taken place, would the design inference have also been dismissed as methodologically unacceptable, and an example of IDiocy?

Heads I win, tails you lose.
I think Victor's analogy is extremely poor, because it tries to relate things that are not remotely comparable.  One is the reality of historical events, which is not under anyone's control, and the other is the enterprise of science, which follows a strategy known as methodological naturalism.  It might have made more sense for Victor to draw a comparison between scientific method and historical method.  Both have the goal of drawing inferences about reality (in one case natural events, and in the other case human events).  Both follow a set of rules designed to arrive at the best inferences about the reality that underlies those events.  Then, you could speculate about what might be different if John Wilkes booth had missed, but as long as historians follow established methodology, they would record the alternative historical reality accurately, whatever it might turn out to be.  Likewise, if scientific evidence was different from what we observe, scientists would draw different conclusions based on that alternative evidence, in keeping with their methodology.

But Victor seems to think that the methodology of science is flawed.  It's flawed because it assumes the existence of natural laws.  Being a Christian who believes that God routinely intervenes in nature to bring about his desired outcomes, Victor has a problem with making the scientific assumption that nature must behave in with accordance natural laws.  This is, in his estimation, the bias of science that precludes any consideration of supernatural intervention in nature.  But there are a couple of problems with his view of science. 

One is that without following this methodology, science couldn't possibly proceed.  There is no predictive power.  You could make any hypothesis you like, and if it is not borne out by experimentation, you could just chalk it up to  God's intervention.  Thus, any outcome is possible, one scientific theory is just as good as any other, and the enterprise of science has no value at all.

The other problem with Victor's view of science is that methodological naturalism is completely consistent with observation, while Victor's approach isn't.  As much as Christians insist that miracles happen, they can't produce a single shred of objective evidence that it's true.  Sure, there are biblical accounts, and there are anecdotal stories, and there are charlatan "scientists" who all attest to these things, but ask them to put their evidence up for the whole world to see, or to subject their evidence to impartial scientific examination, and you'll hear a pile of excuses as to why they can't do that.  If there really were any miracles visible to objective observers, science may fail as an enterprise, but at least we'd all be able to agree that methodological naturalism has no merit.

And even if that were true, I still don't see how Victor's analogy relating scientific discovery with the course of history illustrates the point he is trying to make.  If science really is biased, that might be analogous to faulty historical method producing historical accounts that fail to convey the story of what really happened.  In Victor's view, science is like fiction writing.  You can make up the story to say whatever you like.  But that would be the case in the absence of methodological naturalism, not as a result of it.  He has it backwards.  Because religion can postulate things that are never observed.  Religion can make up whatever story it wants, and it doesn't have to verify or prove any of it.  But unlike religion, science seeks to understand and play by the rules of nature - by following the established rules of science.


  1. Erudite and informative. The confusion is deep in Reppert's misshapen world view. As a philosopher he structures the world through medieval philosophy. As a believer he reconciles the world through the perspective of an iron-age mind-set. Both are anachronistic and fundamentally flawed. As Cal Metzger insightfully commented at another thread, 'believers continue to pretend the Enlightenment didn't happen'. I cannot more strongly iterate, again and again [hows that for a double positive?], the following passage from the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

    "The Enlightenment begins with the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The rise of the new science progressively undermines not only the ancient geocentric conception of the cosmos, but, with it, the entire set of presuppositions that had served to constrain and guide philosophical inquiry. The dramatic success of the new science in explaining the natural world, in accounting for a wide variety of phenomena by appeal to a relatively small number of elegant mathematical formulae, promotes philosophy (in the broad sense of the time, which includes natural science) from a handmaiden of theology, constrained by its purposes and methods, to an independent force with the power and authority to challenge the old and construct the new, in the realms both of theory and practice, on the basis of its own principles." [The bolding is mine]

    Despite his PhD training, Reppert remains a wholly-owned derivative of religious inculcation. What a waste of intellect.

    1. Christians have so many complaints about science - it would make sense for them to come up with their own methodology for investigating reality that actually works better, rather than simply whining about how science doesn't get the results they'd like to see.

  2. Christians have so many complaints about science

    You apparently do not follow B.Prokop's blog. He is a Christian who seems to positively revel in science, and has the greatest respect for it.

    1. Ask him if evolution is an unguided process of natural selection and genetic mutation as science has demonstrated, or is it a process actively guided by a supernatural entity, as Catholic dogma asserts? Interestingly, Prokop absolutely declares the actual existence of Satan.

      So I'm not sure what kind of science he is supposed to have the greatest respect for that you speak of.

    2. Bob is an amateur astronomer, and for that reason, he fancies himself to be scientifically proficient. I have argued with him about what causes the sky to be red at sunset. (It is Rayleigh scattering, and Bob denies that.) I am not impressed with his scientific prowess. But one thing is certain. He is a devout Catholic, and he believes the dogma of the church. He has said that the entire content of the New Testament is literally true. So he doesn't question the existence of miracles, including blatant violations of natural laws. Catholics claim that their faith is fully consistent with science, but whenever that faith comes into conflict with science, faith wins out.

    3. Bob has done it again. He makes this comment (September 24, 2016 9:45 AM):

      I've never understood the appeal of the "Panda's Thumb" argument. It appears to boil down to this:

      - The Panda's thumb is poorly adapted to the animal's requirements; therefore evolution.

      This reveals a startling lack of understanding of a well-known example of evolutionary adaptation. Unlike a bear, the panda's "thumb" is opposable, which provides a significant advantage in grasping its food (bamboo). But this digit is not a true thumb at all. It is an extension of the radial sesamoid. The panda also has five digits with claws, including a non-opposable thumb, much like a bear has. This adaptation is a true marvel of evolution.

      And it is no great surprise Bob has no understanding of this at all.

    4. In reading through the comments at DI, poor old Bob seems to have reverted to type; a militant catholic fundamentalist at bottom. ;o)

    5. Church dogma says that Catholicism is fully compatible with science, and Bob believes that, no matter how much disagreement there is in reality. So he can claim to be on board with science. But his position is to defend the teachings of the church above all else.

    6. Science:
      Genetics + Natural Selection + Random Mutation + Environment = Evolution

      Church Dogma:
      (Genetics + Environment)God + Guided Natural Selection + Randomly Guided Mutation = Evolution.

      Fully compatible with science? Yeah, right.

  3. I didn't pay too much attention to that thread. I thought that VR was simply conflating the idea of an alternate history with the idea of an alternate universe.

    1. It almost seems as if he thinks that the course of science could go in a completely different direction. If Darwin hadn't (arbitrarily) decided on natural selection, then someone else could just as well have come up with a design-based theory, and that would have become the widely accepted scientific view. If that's what Victor thinks, he really doesn't understand how science works (as alluded to by Cal).