The Sciences

Why Evolution is True, But Coyne is Wrong About Religion, Part III: Understanding the Limits of Methodological Naturalism

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJun 9, 2009 1:35 PM


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The Jerry Coyne debate reached temporary hiatus late last week with Coyne invokingRosenhouse to defend himself against my charge that he has violated the methodological vs. philosophical naturalism distinction. Coyne doesn't appear to think he commits this foul; and yet he writes in The New Republic, in a line not quoted by Rosenhouse, that "supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science." Say what? If you accept the MN/PN distinction as I have outlined it, or as Robert Pennock does in Tower of Babel, it is hard see how one can claim this. As Pennock writes:

The first and most basic characteristic of supernatural agents and powers, of course, is that they are above and beyond the natural world and its agents and powers. Indeed, this is the very definition of the term. They are not constrained by natural laws.... (p. 289)

And again:

Experimentation requires observation and control of the variables. We confirm causal laws by performing controlled experiments in which the hypothesized independent variable is made to vary while all other factors are held constant so that we can observe the effect on the dependent variable. But we have no control over supernatural entities or forces; hence these cannot be scientifically studied. (p. 292)

It is hard to see how Coyne thinks he can include supernatural phenomena within the purview of science without directly addressing the whole MN/PN matter, and indeed, wholly rejecting the MN/PN distinction as outlined by someone like Pennock. Let's face it: "supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science" is a pretty extraordinary assertion. Indeed, as far as I can tell it is a contradiction in terms. Yet in what I have read so far (I have not read his book, so it may be there), Coyne doesn't directly address the MN/PN matter. Certainly, given that he is dealing with these topics in some detail in the lengthy New Republic article, that would have been an ideal place to take on this philosophical point. But it isn't there. Let's remember why this is important. I have argued that science and religion are at least theoretically reconcilable due to the MN/PN distinction. You can accept all the realities that science reveals through MN, and yet also have supernatural beliefs (not PN), so long as you don't confuse the two. I am not arguing that every religious believer actually grasps this philosophical distinction, or is well read in the philosophy of science. I am simply arguing that it is healthy to be aware of it, as it can lead to a more peaceful relationship between science and religion. Indeed, I would add that religious moderates like Kenneth Miller are the ones most likely to get the distinction, and thus to reconcile science and personal faith in a sustainable way. And to the extent that they can bring other believers along and help them to achieve a similar armistice with science, that is a very good thing. But some scientists, too, fail to understand the difference between MN and PN, and make metaphysical claims that science cannot sustain. At this juncture--tentatively, as I would be happy to hear further explanation--I wonder if Coyne isn't one of them. Let me close with another quotation from Pennock:

Scientists need to recognize and respect, as most do, the limits of methodological naturalism. If individual scientists wish to dive into deeper waters, then they should be clear when they are doing so...and not suggest that their conclusions are drawn strictly from within science. (Pennock, "God of the Gaps: The Argument from Ignorance and the Limits of Methdological Naturalism," in Andrew J. Petto and Laurie R. Godfrey, eds., Scientists Confront Creationism: Intelligent Design and Beyond, New York: Norton, 2008.)

P.S.: I will add that I am not a philosopher, and without having read and studied Pennock, probably wouldn't wade into these waters. But at the same time, it seems to me that MN/PN is a pretty basic distinction, as are the definitions of "natural" and "supernatural." Furthermore, I suspect most scientists would agree that their work and their methodology does not allow them to make claims about alleged supernatural agents.

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