Does the progress of science vindicate naturalism?

Deutsche Version:  Weisen die Fortschritte der Naturwissenschaft auf die Wahrheit des Naturalismus hin?

 

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In the Secular Outpost at Patheos, the insightful atheist and naturalist philosopher Jeffery Jay Lowder wrote an interesting post criticizing theistic explanations.

One sentence at the end of the text caught my attention:

“At this point, the naturalist can hardly be blamed for comparing the track record of naturalistic explanations to that of theistic explanations and sticking with naturalistic explanations.”
The problem with that comparison is that it is very similar to a kind of black-and-white thinking.

He opposes naturalism (A) against everything incompatible with naturalism (B) and states that if on average science is much more consistent with A than with B, then A must be true.

But this is a fallacious dichotomy. Let us consider different theoretical supernatural models, whose existence as ideas is independent of the first time they came up in a human mind.

B1: Spiritism: everything we see around us is caused by invisible forces

B2: Intervention Theism: there are some automatic processes but God has to intervene all the time to fix things

B3: Lazy Theism: many things work automatically according to the laws created by God but he has to intervene for important things like the creation of new species

B4: Evolutionary Theism: God created the laws of nature in such a way he can work in the universe without violating them.

B5: Deism: God just created our universe and doesn’t care anymore about it, he has been from the very beginning an absent landlord.

B6: Panentheism (Phillip Clayton): there are strong emergent properties and phenomena which cannot be reduced to the sum of their parts. God is the greatest being this strong emergence can possibly produce.

If one adopts an epistemological version of Occam’s razor (which I don’t as I explain here) it is clear that B1 and B2 have been constantly pushed back as science progressed and from Darwin’s time, the same thing has been occurring for B3 despite all the efforts of ID creationists to show the contrary.

Now, many atheists (tough not necessarily Jeff himself) reason like this: on average, B has been constantly shoved away by the advances of science which is completely compatible with A, so since B4 and B5 belongs to B, they must also be much less likely to be true than A.

But that’s a clear example of a fallacious reasoning.

If you want to show that B5 is much less likely than A, you have to DIRECTLY compare them.

And the extraordinary success of science to find natural and logical explanations would have been a prediction of B5 (and even B4) three thousand years ago.

Therefore you cannot use the success of natural explanations to favor A over B4, B5, B6 because the three models predicted the same things.

All you can say is appealing to the epistemological razor of Occam: when two theories explain equally well the same data, the simplest one is always the most likely one.

But as I’ve explained, nobody has been able to prove this without begging the question and smuggling assumptions about the actual simplicity of the cosmos into the argumentation.

 

 

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7 thoughts on “Does the progress of science vindicate naturalism?

  1. “He opposes naturalism (A) against everything incompatible with naturalism B) and states that if on average science is much more consistent with A than with B, then A must be true.”
    – Not quite. The point is, that there are countless examples of supernatural pseudo-explanations (“pseudo” because they actually had zero explanatory value and predicted nothing) being replaced with much better natural / scientific explanations, but the opposite has *never* happened. So you could replace the “on average” with an “always” in your sentence. Also, the argument would not be that this indicates that naturalism / physicalism is true, but rather that this evidence favors naturalism over supernaturalism.

    “And the extraordinary success of science to find natural and logical explanations would have been a prediction of B5 (and even B4) three thousand years ago.
    Therefore you cannot use the success of natural explanations to favor A over B4, B5, B6 because the three models predicted the same things.”
    – That is inaccurate. Neither deism nor any form of theism predicted the success of the scientific method. Try to find any ancient philosopher who predicted the success of logical reasoning based on empirical evidence *before* this success was actually observed. Theists *nowadays* like to argue that theism predicts an orderly universe which is thus explicable with scientific methods, but they did *not* do so *before* the scientific method had already been *demonstrated* to be spectacularly successful.

    • Hello Andy, thanks for your comment!


      – Not quite. The point is, that there are countless examples of supernatural pseudo-explanations (“pseudo” because they actually had zero explanatory value and predicted nothing) being replaced with much better natural / scientific explanations, but the opposite has *never* happened. So you could replace the “on average” with an “always” in your sentence. Also, the argument would not be that this indicates that naturalism / physicalism is true, but rather that this evidence favors naturalism over supernaturalism. „

      I think one must distinguish between several things here:

      1) scientific theories aiming at describing how the universe works
      2) historical theories aiming at reconstructing what happened CONTIGENTLY in the distant or recent past
      3) metaphysical theories aiming at answering fundamental questions inaccessible to science such as: „Why is there something rather nothing?“, „Has life any meaning?“, „What is morality?“, „What is the nature of mathematical laws?“, „How can we know anything at all?“ and so on and so forth.

      I agree that supernatural theories have never been successful for 1) but probably not for the same reasons as your: the phenomena of nature do not only present a striking predictability describable by natural laws but also bear all the marks of an absence of intelligent purpose and this is why it would be silly to say that the movements of stars is produced by a horde of angels.

      That said I disagree this is a victory for materialism because I don’t see how a mathematical law describing the behavior of particles could be itself IDENTICAL to particles.

      As I’ve explained in other posts, I believe that there are good grounds for rejecting materialism as a metaphysical theory.

      Concerning 2), I will say something very shocking: IF one only searches for normal and not extraordinary evidence, I believe that a SMALL minority of UFO cases shows that something otherworldly is going on. This is the conclusion which would be reached in other any field of inquiry.
      In the future, I will explain why I think this is so, at the beginning I thought like everyone else that the whole thing was rubbish.
      The bottom line is that I fail to see why supernatural (or paranormal) explanations are worse for SINGULAR, isolated events.

      “And the extraordinary success of science to find natural and logical explanations would have been a prediction of B5 (and even B4) three thousand years ago.
      Therefore you cannot use the success of natural explanations to favor A over B4, B5, B6 because the three models predicted the same things.”
      – That is inaccurate. Neither deism nor any form of theism predicted the success of the scientific method. Try to find any ancient philosopher who predicted the success of logical reasoning based on empirical evidence *before* this success was actually observed. Theists *nowadays* like to argue that theism predicts an orderly universe which is thus explicable with scientific methods, but they did *not* do so *before* the scientific method had already been *demonstrated* to be

      spectacularly successful.“

      Okay, I wasn’t specific enough. It is obviously true that not all forms of theism and deism would lead to predict that reality is governed by mathematical laws but there are quite a few theistic philosophies and theologies which would have clearly led to this conclusion.
      The contingent fact they hadn’t many proponents in the past does nothing to show us they’re unlikely.

      As a side-note, the atheistic theories of the past (like the materialism of the Epicureans) also failed to predict the modern success of the scientific method.

  2. I’m somewhere between B3 & B4. God made the world in such a way that its effects on mankind are often predictable. I apply this mostly to natural phenomena such as hurricanes, droughts, tornadoes, earthquakes, and the weather, as examples. Tornadoes fascinate me. One house will be completely destroyed while the one next door is left intact. Did God intervene to protect the house unscathed? I don’t think so. What kind of theist does that make me?

    • Hello Sheila, thanks for your reply!

      I obviously wasn’t making a list of mutually exclusive options for theists.

      I was responding instead to the widespread tendency of atheists to pick and choose the weakest forms of theism out there, defeat them and then claim that Theism in general has been defeated.

      This is a very bad practice. If I want to prove my position, I have to be able to overcome my STRONGEST opponent.

      I’d be utterly foolish if I proclaimed loudly “Atheism is dead!” just because I was able to debunk Dawkins and his underlings.

      Likewise, the New Atheists are foolish and lazy when they shout out “God does not exist!” just because they could conclusively show that fundamentalist Christianity is rubbish.

      I’m also between B3 and B4, and it’s hard for me to believe that God preserved one house while allowing all other to be blotted out.

      I dealt with the problem of evil below, perhaps this could be of interest to you.
      https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/the-problem-of-evil-revisited-by-lothars-son/

      Anyway it is always my pleasure to read new comments from you 🙂

      • I am reading the blog entry to which you linked, and I believe I will be reblogging that one, too. Important points are made, which I think will help every type of theist, or anti-theist, think more deeply about complexities in faith in general, and Christianity in particular. I suppose my thinking is why I take so much heat on here from time to time.

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