Supernatural Science

Victor J. Stenger

For Reality Check column in Skeptical Briefs, March 2006.

 

In the Dover, Pa., trial that made front pages in December, Judge John E. Jones III ruled that teaching intelligent design (ID) in public-school science classes is an unconstitutional violation of Church and State. This case mirrored McLean v. Arkansas, the 1981 trial in which Judge William R. Overton tossed out an Arkansas law that called for a "balanced treatment for creation-science and evolution-science."

       On both trials, the presiding federal judges went further than was necessary in making their rulings, an amusing example of judicial activism in the case of the Bush-appointed Jones. Not only did the jurists rule creation science and ID as unconstitutional entanglements of government with religion, which would have been sufficient to decide each case (as Judge Jones admitted in his decision), they labeled them as not science. In doing so, they were forced to define science—something on which neither scientists nor philosophers have been able to reach a consensus.

In Arkansas, Judge Overton relied mainly on the testimony of philosopher Michael Ruse and defined science as follows:

(1)     it is guided by natural law;

(2)     it has to be explained by reference to natural law;

(3)     it is testable against the empirical world;

(4)     its conclusions are tentative, that is, are not necessarily the final word;

 (5)    it is falsifiable.

The eminent philosopher, Larry Laudan, my colleague at the University of Hawaii at the time, was one of the strong voices disputing Popperian falsifiability as a workable demarcation criterion for science. When the Arkansas decision was announced, Laudan objected strenuously. He pointed out that creation science is in fact testable, tentative, and falsifiable. For example, it predicts a young Earth and other geological facts that have, in fact, been falsified. Falsified science can still be science, just wrong science. Laudan warned that the Arkansas decision would come back to haunt science by "perpetuating and canonizing a false stereotype on what science is and how it works."

       Coming up-to-date, we similarly find that ID is testable, tentative, and falsifiable. For example, William Dembski asserts a “law of conservation of information” which implies that information cannot be generated by natural processes. This is provably wrong. Information is negative entropy and the second law of thermodynamics allows for the entropy of systems interacting with their environments to decrease and thus information to increase naturally. Michael Behe's examples of "irreducible complexity" have similarly been refuted.

       I am not quibbling with the ruling that ID, as practiced by the York Board of Education, represented an unconstitutional attempt to promote a sectarian view of creation under the guise of science. And I also agree that ID is pseudoscience rather than genuine science. But my reasons are not based on plugging in some algorithm written by a lawyer. Pseudoscience, it is like pornography. You know it when you see it.

Judge Jones relied on the Arkansas precedent and witnesses from both sides who testified that for ID to be considered science, the ground rules of science would have to be broadened to allow the consideration of supernatural forces. Indeed, the Discovery Institute, which is the primary financial force behind ID, has stated that one of its goals is to "defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies." The whole ID campaign started with the writings of lawyer Phillip Johnson who claims that the doctrine that nature is "all there is" is the virtually unquestioned assumption that underlies not only natural science but intellectual work of all kinds. Those scientists and science organizations that would limit science to the investigation of natural causes are providing unwitting support for Johnson's assertion that science is dogmatically naturalistic. They may keep winning battles and lose the war.

Furthermore, they are factually incorrect. Right under their noses, capable, credentialed scientists are investigating the possibility of supernatural causes. Reputable institutions such as the Mayo Clinic and Duke University are studying phenomena that, if verified, would provide strong empirical support for the existence of some nonmaterial element in the universe. These experiments are designed to test the healing power of distant, blinded intercessory prayer. Their results have been published in peer-reviewed medical journals.

Unfortunately, the prayer literature is marred by some very poor studies. But reading the best of the published papers you will see all the indications of proper scientific methodology at work. If they are not science, then I do not know what is. (Incidentally, none have found any evidence that prayer works despite media reports otherwise.)

Philosophers of science refer to the self-imposed convention of science that limits inquiry to objective observations of the world as methodological naturalism. It has worked well and it would still apply to prayer studies since any positive healing effects would be measurable events. The dispute is not over the experimental procedures but rather the theoretical interpretation of the data.

Methodological naturalism is often conflated with metaphysical naturalism, which assumes that reality itself is purely natural, that is, composed solely of material objects. While it cannot be denied that most physical scientists, at least, think this is the case, they cannot prove it. Furthermore, they see no need in trying since ultimately this is not a scientific question amenable to empirical adjudication. If it were, it would not be metaphysics but physics.

So methodological naturalism can still be applied without implying any dogmatic attachment to metaphysical naturalism. We can imagine all sorts of phenomena that, if observed, would suggest the possibility of some reality beyond the material. Indeed, we can even view many of these phenomena as predictions that can be used to test for the existence of an immaterial component to the universe in which so many people believe. For example, if after exhaustive testing we find no evidence for the efficacy of prayer, we can reasonably conclude that no supernatural entity exists that answers prayers in any significant manner. Similarly, if we find no evidence for Intelligent Design, again after exhaustive searching, we can reasonable conclude that an intelligent designer does not exist. Indeed, if anything has come out of the Intelligent Design movement it is the increasing realization that the closer you examine the universe, the more it looks as it should look in the absence of design.

I wonder if those who are so anxious to see evidence against evolution discussed in class are prepared to also include the evidence against God. Perhaps the best strategy for science would be to threaten the antievolutionists with just that.

 


Victor J. Stenger's  next book, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come from? will be out in July. His website is at www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger.