Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Science, the Classroom and the Judge

Science and Theology News ran an article by Alvin Plantinga on the decision rendered in Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District a couple weeks back which is highly critical of Judge Jones' ruling that ID is not science.

On one point, Plantinga scores easy points, there is something a bit odd about a judge consulting legal definitions and precedents to try to determine ID "is" science. Science is a field of study, not a legally mandated category, and so any attempt to do this will run into certain problems and end up looking rather silly. This is the problem we run into when we have schools which are not merely government funded but government administered. And yet, who wants to fund something he can't control?

However, as he moves into his analysis of why Jones' conclusion that ID isn't science is flawed, Plantinga himself goes in for what strikes me as some sloppy reasoning. For instance:

First, he said that ID is not science by virtue of its "invoking and permitting supernatural causation." Second, and connected with the first, he said that ID isn't science because the claims IDers make are not testable -- that is verifiable or falsifiable. The connection between the two is the assertion, on the part of the judge and many others, that propositions about supernatural beings -- that life has been designed by a supernatural being -- are not verifiable or falsifiable.

... askinging these notions in a rough-and-ready way we can easily see that propositions about supernatural beings not being verifiable or falsifiable isn't true at all.

For example, the statement "God has designed 800-pound rabbits that live in Cleveland" is clearly testable, clearly falsifiable and indeed clearly false.
Perhaps Plantinga's degree of certainty that statements about the supernatural are testable and falsifiable has allowed him to pick a poor example, but this one seems to me to fall short. There are several layers of statement here which can be tested with varying degrees of success. For instance, there is the statement that "800-pound rabbits live in Cleveland" which we may very much doubt, but we cannot absolutely prove. (At best, we can show that no one has yet successfully found an 800 pound rabbit living in Cleveland.) Then, there is the question of God "designing" the rabbit. Should be find the over-inflated lupine, how exactly can we be sure that God designed it? If we believe (as I do) that God created the universe and holds it in existence through a constant act of the will, we may say (accepting that belief as true) that God designed the rabbit in that sense. But how exactly can we be sure that God designed it in the more immediate sense which I assume Plantinga is using -- namely that he created the rabbit ex nihilo? Even if we were standing in a field and saw the rabbit suddenly appear amid a flash of light, a blare of trumpets, and the echoing words "This is my beloved rabbit, which is rather larger than the normal variety" we would only "know" that the rabbit was created by God to the extent that we assumed with confidence that no other being was capable of putting on such a show for our benefit. (Before anyone says this is a total no brainer and that no one but God can work miracles, I would suggest that Muhammad must, unless he was a conscious fraud or totally insane, have seen or heard some impressive things performed by someone -- and yet as Christians we must doubt that this person was indeed God or the Angel Gabriel.)

Continuing to argue that science indeed may include supernatural agents in its calculations, Plantinga argues thus:

Does this important and multifarious human activity by its very nature preclude references to the supernatural? How would anyone argue a thing like that?

Newton was perhaps the greatest of the founders of modern science. His theory of planetary motion is thought to be an early paradigm example of modern science. Yet, according to Newton's own understanding of his theory, the planetary motions had instabilities that God periodically corrected. Shall we say that Newton wasn't doing science when he advanced that theory or that the theory isn't a scientific theory at all?
Now, with all due respect, what Newton was doing in this case was not including supernatural agency in his theory per se. Rather, he was indulging in that age-old activity of fudging what he couldn't explain. His theories of motion came very, very close to explaining all the observable evidence, but not quite. So he went ahead and ran with the theory and said that the remaining gaps were probably filled by divine intervention.

Plantinga correctly discerns that the disconnect is in determining exactly what science is supposed to achieve in the first place:

Some say the aim of science is to discover and state natural laws. Others, equally enthusiastic about science, think there aren't any natural laws to discover. According to Richard Otte and John Mackie, the aim of science is to propose accounts of how the world goes for the most part, apart from miracles. Others reject the "for the most part" disclaimer. How does one tell which, if any, of these proposed constraints actually do hold for science? And why should we think that methodological naturalism really does constrain science? And what does "science" really mean?

I don't have the space to give a complete answer -- as one says when he doesn't know a complete answer -- but the following seems sensible: The usual dictionary definitions suffice to give us the meaning of the term "science." They suggest that this term denotes any activity that is:
(a) a systematic and disciplined enterprise aimed at finding out truth about our world, and
(b) has significant empirical involvement. Any activity that meets these vague conditions counts as science.
Clearly, that's a pretty broad definition. By that criteria, many branches of 'socal studies' might be considered 'science'. And if so, well and good, perhaps. But I still think there's a useful distinction to be mpursuitseen wider persuits of the "truth about our worllimitedhe rather limitted ambition of formulating theories which allow one to make successful predictions about how physical systems willlimited And that limitted field, whatever one wants to call it, is clearly a field which cannot successfully answer the question "Did God design this?"

One may argue, and perhaps correctly, that in our contemporary culture the concept of 'science' has been given so much power (indeed, many consider it the only way of knowing anything) that to leave metaphysical questions out of it is the same as denying that metaphysical questions exist. (I think of this as the "if science can't tell us about God what good is it" school of thought.) However, if one accepts this widened mandate for 'science' one must eventually define some subgroup of it ("natural science" or "physical science" or "methodological naturalism") which fills the place which people such as Ruse suggest science as a whole fills. And so, in a sense, why bother? The essential thing, it seems to me, is to be clear on the necessity of other fields of inquiry other science -- that indeed one cannot live a human life while knowing only what "science" tells us. Indeed, that "science" tells us very little about what we truly love and value.

Plantinga concludes:

...[I]f you exclude the supernatural from science, then if the world or some phenomena within it are supernaturally caused -- as most of the world's people believe -- you won't be able to reach that truth scientifically.

Observing methodological naturalism thus hamstrings science by precluding science from reaching what would be an enormously important truth about the world.
To me, this seems no more worrisome than saying "Metaphysics cannot tell you at what rate a canon ball, dropped from a skyscraper, will plummet toward the earth." But if one expects from science (or whatever one wants to call what most scientists call science) a full view of the truth about the world, it becomes a worrisome in the extreme.

UPDATE: If you're curious to read more about Alvin Plantinga's thought in re the evolution question, he has a lengthy paper on the topic here.


Bob said...

I think Plantinga makes some strong points by turning many atheist arguments on their head. For example the claim that the only reason christians don't accept evolution is because of religious bias. Well one could equally say that the atheist has strong reasons for accepting evolution, namely that without it atheism is not possible.

As far as scientific methodology I think that Plantinga is correct also in assesing the current trends in science. Basically the only answers you can give are naturalistic ones. I think that is just fine when one stays in the areas of physics and chemestry. However a problem arises when we have men like Carl Sagan making statements like "The universe is all there is, ever was, and ever will be." That is NOT a scientific statement. Nor do I think in the arena of evolution do we find many serious data, just dogmatic statements like Sagan's. These come in trying to respond to ID questions about irreducible complexity, the eye, blood clotting, etc. The anthem seems to be in response time plus mutation and natural selection. But that is the very theses in question thus this is fallacious (question begging). What I want to see from those in the evolution camp is produce some serious evidence, fossils, evidences in micro biology etc. We can talk all we want about methodology and bias but sound evidence speaks louder.

CMinor said...

Not to hare-split (pun intended) but I think you meant lepine, not lupine. Unless, of course, it was an 800-lb were-rabbit...

Darwin said...


There is a fair amount of evidence such as you are curious to find out there, if your interest is primarily in the scientific evidence surrounding the evolution question. If you'd like to seek a Catholic perspective, I'd strongly recommend Finding Darwin's God by Kenneth Miller. Although I am certainly an enthusiastic amateur, I am not myself a scientist, so I don't tend to try to go heavily into the hard science side of the question. However, if you're interested there are a number of article on the question in the Evolution and Intelligent Design meta-thread at the upper right corner of the page.


I blush. You are right of course, so perhaps I can fall back on the claim that I was indeed thinking of a were-rabbit. (My daughters would like that anyway.) Would lepine be correct, or would it be leporidine? It's hopeless...

Anonymous said...

A further point about Bob's assertion:

Atheism is certainly possible without evolution (as a developed scientific theory), though perhaps not without "metaphysical evolutionism." But it is true that serious non-theistic thinkers before evolutionary theory (think the Stoics or Spinoza) tended to be pantheist rather than atheist in the modern sense.

CMinor said...

I had to go to my really old dictionaries for this one (guess that means it's time to invest in a serious dictionary & give up on my dearest husband's crummy 1980's collegiate edition.) Anyway, Webster's 1966 3rd International & Noah Webster's 1848 both list "leporine" (from Lepus=hare) and the 3rd Int also lists "leporide" (but only in reference to the Belgian Hare, a large domestic breed thought by some to be descended from rabbit/hare hybrids,) and "leporiform" (which doesn't make it a rabbit, but only resembling one.) Terry A. Vaughan's Mammology (1978, 2nd ed.) used "leporid" repeatedly both as noun and adjective but did not employ the other forms as far as I could see.

CMinor said...

Oy, veh--Mammalogy
I kick myself.

Darwin said...

So long as none of us fall into the sin of mammalotry, cminor, I think we shall all be safe...

Darwin said...


Interesting point about pre-Darwinian atheists. I'm something of a fan of Lucretius (and who can blame him for resorting to atheism in the face of ancient paganism) and there are some other interesting ancient philosophies of atheism. (I thought I'd touched on that in responding to Bob, but I guess that was in the comment I left on his blog.)

I know next to nothing about atheism in the medieval era, aside from that it probably wasn't a healthy thing to be well known for. We seem to see the first notable resurgence of it after the religious wars following the reformation -- both out of disgust at the carnage and out of a return to the classical conception of an eternal world in which man is the highest creature

Bob said...

Hey, this is an interesting thread... I however still hold firm to my assertion that Atheism is not logically possible apart from an evolutionary theses. This does not overthrow the possible truthfulness of evolution theory but I think to be an Atheist and seriously attempt to answer the question "Where did life come from?" one has to produce some naturalistic explanation of the origins of life. This is why at one time most held the universe to itself be eternal, however, Einsteinian relativity pretty well ruled that possiblity out. Of course there were atheists prior to 1859, but as Plantinga quotes Dawkins saying "[Darwinism] made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist"

Evolution theory fills (at least in part) a major gap atheists need to have an answer for. I say in part because still harder is the question "How can lif come from non-life". I am willing to accept evolution as true, it really poses no threat to my christianity, I just want some hard evidence, not examples of micro evolution (different kinds of dogs).

Darwin-I will check out what Miller has to say, him being a Catholic. I see his name pop up all the time, it seems like he is the poster boy in the evolution debate for a "Good Religious man".

Oh by the way what is going on in the Catholic church as far as its stance with evolution? I hear the new pope is against evolution.

CMinor said...

Perhaps a Newtonian fudge would be too much to ask, but personally I'd like to hear an occasional "Blimey, we don't know!" from the scientific community. Too often the tone of argumentation runs more to the obnoxious adolescent:
"NO, NO, NO, God didn't do it and you can't prove He did! Na na na na..." (hands over ears.)
Evolution through natural selection is a useful model for a lot of things we see going on in the world, but scientists intruding into theology is at least as grating as the theologically-minded trying to play scientist.
I'm not sure about the "definition" of science that necessarily excludes the possibility of the supernatural, but I'm pretty confident that science should not exclude that which is not demonstrably false. A scientist should, after all, be open to unknown possibilities.

Darwin said...


I do certainly agree with you that evolution has become an important article of faith for convinced atheists -- I guess I just tend to feel like if evolution weren't there as an available theory people with that set on inclinations would simply find another excuse. After all (taking the opposite example) although many of us Christians see the big bang theory as tying in nicely to the biblical "Let there be light" this has neither changed the minds of atheist physicists such as Stephen Hawking, nor has it prevented materialists from simply assuming that such a thing could have happened without any particular explanation ("It was a random vacuum fluctuation. No problem...") and that's leaving aside more complex glosses such as the oscillating universe theory and the multiple worlds theory.

On macro vs. micro evolution, I see you proint, but it's also a tricky thing to 'prove'. Often what people skeptical of evolution want to see if a very clearly documented line of succession from very different species of large vertibrates. "I want to see a dog turn into a whale." With the current state of knowledge of the fossil record, the fairly well documented transitions that I've read about are pretty non-sexy science. One species of trilobite giving way to another, for instance. People tend to look at that kind of thing and say, "So what. They may be classified as different species, but it looks like micro evolution to me." In this sense, the micro/macro distinction is often a matter of "show me something cool". However, there is (although I don't think this is the case) the possibility that there's some sort of biological 'centering' mechanism which tends to allow a certain amount of 'micro' evolution but then pulls the gene pool back towards a median equalibrium.

On Catholicism and evolution, the Church does not have a teaching on evolution per se, though Pius XII and John Paul II both affirmed clearly that although evolution might be a biologically accurate description of the development of life on earth, it in no sense means that life as we know it was not created or intended by God. They also reminded the faithful that whatever the biological origins of human bodies, that the human soul is specially created by God, and that at some point in time God infused souls into the first truly 'human' man and woman -- Adam and Eve.

I don't know of any particular statements that Benedict XVI has made about evolution (aside from echoing Pius XII and John Paul II's thoughts above) but it's also important to remember the distinction between a pope's personal thinking on an issue and his definitions of solomn doctrine on faith and morals. For instance, as a cardinal Ratzinger wrote about the moral and artistic evils of rock music (opinions which I assume he still holds) but that doesn't mean that the Church has a teaching 'against' rock music.