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Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Case of Rupert Sheldrake Illustrates how Some Evangelicals May Misunderstand Methodological Naturalism

Lately it seems I haven't been able to stick with multi-post projects on this blog.  This post may appear to be part of that pattern, but I'm hoping to link it in with my planned thought experiment on Eve in paradise.  The stimulus for this post was a series of exchanges I had with Steve Hays et. al. on Triablogue here and here regarding methodological naturalism in scientific investigation.

When I asked him for examples of scientific investigation that avoided the pitfall of methodological naturalism, he directed me to Rupert Sheldrake and Stephen Braude.  I took some time to learn about Rupert Sheldrake.

Reflection on Sheldrake's views and the controversy they have generated clarified a few things about the accusations some theists make against methodological naturalism in science.  It led me to do a little more digging and I found two  helpful articles by Barbara Forrest here and here along with some criticism. I would like to review this issue a bit again using some of the insights from the Forrest articles and criticisms before I tackle Sheldrake.

In the course of the discussion on Triablogue, one of the critics of methodological naturalism suggested that the real issue is not so much "natural" vs. "supernatural" as "designed" vs. "non-designed."   Some proponents of methodological naturalism might seem to agree.  For example, consider these words of Paul Kurtz:  "First, naturalism is committed to a methodological principle within the context of scientific inquiry; i.e., all hypotheses and events are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events. To introduce a supernatural or transcendental cause within science is to depart from naturalistic explanations. On this ground, to invoke an intelligent designer or creator is inadmissible. . . ."  Or how about this from Steven Schafersman: “except for humans, philosophical naturalists understand nature to be fundamentally mindless and purposeless. . . ."  On this interpretation methodological naturalism betrays its precommitment to metaphysical naturalism by excluding in advance intelligent purpose, plan, or design from its theories about the operation of the world, except in the case of human endeavors -- and those of intelligent "aliens," assuming any are discovered.  "Supernatural" is the naturalist's code word for "deriving from a transcendant intelligence, especially God."  Another way to put it is that on this interpretation disputes over methodological naturalism largely resolve to the dispute over teleology.

Even after all this I think it is a fundamental mistake to confuse methodological naturalism with a resistance to teleology.  There is no necessary connection between them.  In fact, "naturalism" or "materialism" does not refer to an entity's lack of consciousness or purposive activity.  Instead, methodological naturalism is primarily a commitment to incorporating only what can be experienced by human beings into scientific explanation.  Forrest quotes Arthur Strahler to this effect:  "[S]upernatural forces, if they can be said to exist, cannot be observed, measured, or recorded [emphasis mine] by the procedures of science--that's simply what the word 'supernatural' means.  There can be no limit to the kinds and shapes of supernatural forces and forms the human mind is capable of conjuring up 'from nowhere.' Scientists therefore have no alternative but to ignore the claims of the existence of supernatural forces and causes."  Only if we can detect and measure a phenomenon can it play a role in scientific explanation. 

I believe this is the proper place to bring into play Richard Lewontin's notorious statement in his review of Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World that scientists embrace materialism "a priori" and cannot let a Divine foot in the door.   He sums up as follows: "To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen." It sounds like Lewontin is complaining about God's apparently arbitrary intentionality.  But that is not the issue.  He hints at the real issue in the title to his review:  "Billions and Billions of Demons."  Demons, angels, fairies, aliens with superior technology, God himself all have the capacity, according to at least some of their devoted followers, to become totally undetectable at will.  They inhabit the world of human experience and an alternate world totally beyond human reach and can step in and out of that other world any time they want.   This convenient ability allows those who believe in them to dismiss scepticism because the inhabitant of that other world simply decided to hide herself from the sceptical inquirer.  This was a common tactic in the witch trials of the 16 and 17th centuries.  With that kind of argument you can spawn an arbitrary number of theories of arbitrary complexity populated by an arbitrary number of undetectable entities -- "billions" of demons.   Now replace the personal entity with a mystical experience such as reincarnation.   If a believer in reincarnation defends the belief with the same type of argument -- the evidence is simply hidden from the sceptical inquirer -- he runs afoul of methodological naturalism without making any teleological claims.   

This brings me to Rupert Sheldrake.  Sheldrake's theory of morphic resonance raises a lot of questions in my mind.  Perhaps reading his books would answer some of them.  For now, though, I just want to point out the following:
1.  The two critics of Sheldrake I heard from (Lewis Wolpert and P. Z. Myers) both stated clearly that they object because Sheldrake can present no good evidence for his theory.  Neither of them complained about Sheldrake's claims of divine intervention or supernatural powers, because he makes none.
2.  Sheldrake himself insists that he is working on accumulating evidence to back up his theories.  The experiments posted on his website are meant to gather data that will support the idea that there is some kind of collective "memory" or "field" shared by all members of a given species and that information gathered by one member is shared with all via transmission through this "field."  Steve Hays pointed to Sheldrake's experiments as an example of how one could do science without relying on methodological naturalism.  In fact, Sheldrake's experiments do no such thing.  His theory may be wacko mystical nonsense, as Wolpert claims, but his intent is to accumulate enough data to build an explanatory framework that conforms to the requirements of methodological naturalism.  He appears to believe, for instance, that we will eventually be able to detect and measure "morphic fields" directly.

Detectability is the real issue in methodological naturalism.  But detectability is a tricky issue on its own.  I reserve further discussion for another post.

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