Sunday, July 11, 2010

scientism, etc

maybe I should read this book

I've been reading with some bemusement about the problems Chris Mooney has been having with sock-puppetry. I'm no expert, but it does seem as if they've been largely of his own making. And all I wanted to do was focus on the compatibility issue [which is related to, but different from, the accommodationist issue]. Mooney's credibility seems to be sinking fast, so I'd better get on with looking at his and others' claims that there's a useful distinction to be made between methodological naturalism [roughly, the view that science should follow methodologies which rule out the supernatural, for purely pragmatic reasons - it works, spectacularly] and philosophical naturalism [the view that the natural world is all there is]. The reason for this 'useful distinction', of course, is to allow science and religion to cohabit, or to occupy mutually exclusive spheres, the natural and the supernatural. In other words, science has nothing whatever to say about philosophical naturalism, because it shines no light on the supernatural to discover whether it exists or not.

I've already raised a number of objections to this, as have Dawkins, Coyne, Rosenhouse and probably innumerable others. The essential objection is that the supernatural never seems to keep to its own sphere in the minds of those who believe in it. In fact it is central to deistic thinking that something/someone supernatural caused the natural world. You can't get more connected than that.

Unfortunately, when scientists explore causation with regard to such biggies as the origin of the universe, they follow the tenets of methodological naturalism, which tends to render more and more remote the possibilities for supernatural causation - especially as the scientific theories involved are extremely rigorous and highly verified. We now know that our universe is about 13.7 billion years old, that it began with a 'big bang', and that our earth, far from being central and prominent, is minuscule, peripheral and contingent. It becomes harder to believe in a personal god, with a special interest in the human species in particular, created in that god's likeness.

You could also say that methodological naturalism has nothing to say about astrology or faith healing, except that this approach yields much better explanations [for people who get better after visiting a faith healer], or helps show that no explanation is necessary [astrological predictions are no more likely to be true than any random predictions], and thus undermine any reasons for believing in them. For this reason, many scientists, insofar as they go in for philosophy, tend to make no distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. Everything in their world, their working world, can be explained naturalistically, so why not just accept that this methodology can explain everything, or has the potential to do so.

Mooney and others want to uphold this distinction as vital, and seek to disparage philosophical naturalism as 'scientism', which they associate with hubris. Instead of 'science has been found, after centuries of testing and exploration, to provide the best methodologies for understanding our world and ourselves [and indeed, science could be defined as the sum of those best methodologies]', scientism lectures us with 'science has all the answers, or will have shortly, so get with the program or fuck off'. You could say it's just a matter of tone. Philosophical naturalism doesn't claim to provide all the answers, it only argues persuasively that its approach has been phenomenally successful and provides the standard. Belief in the supernatural, whether religious or not, hasn't gotten us anywhere, either in the sphere of knowledge or of morality. Our growing scientific knowledge of the human species has informed our morality, as we come to understand the basis of our feelings of sympathy and antipathy, upon which morality is based. Belief in supernatural entities and obedience to their supposed commandments has not helped us towards greater understanding, and introspection has clear limits. As scepticism has been an important factor in developing scientific methodologies, it's unlikely that the genuine philosophical naturalism will ever claim that science has or will have all the answers. Science has always generated more questions than answers, and it's likely that it will continue to do so. It is this scepticism, I think, that distinguishes philosophical naturalism from scientism.

So what other objections do Mooney et al come up with? So far, I've not been able to come up with anything philosophical from Mooney, it's all about pragmatic accommodationism. Casey Luskin suggests that he's concerned primarily about constitutional issues [see the first amendment to the US constitution], but I think it's more about recognising, in the US sphere, that there's a real fight to be had in keeping claptrap out of American schools, and being nice to scientifically-minded believers will be the best strategy in fighting that fight, considering the high percentage of supernatural belief in that country. This may be right, in the short term, but I'm more concerned about deeper issues of compatibility. I'm also concerned that the being-nice-to-the-right-sort-of-believers strategy might entail being nasty to the wrong sort of atheists.

I'll keep looking through Mooney's back catalogue of posts for something more substantial from him.  

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