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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Is human finitude a reason to abandon methodological naturalism?

Before I get into the meat of the post, just a reminder to someone who happens not to have read the previous posts that I am continuing a series about methodological naturalism.  As mentioned in a previous post, I will not be using that term in favor of the terms "detectable, observable, and measurable" to describe the requirement in standard scientific method that theories be supported/confirmed by "detectable, observable, and measurable" data.  

Human finitude complicates the issue of detectability. If somehow we had made everything ourselves and had the design plans in hand, we could account for everything, even things we could not detect with our senses and instruments.  In fact, the world we know existed before us and will continue after we perish, we had no hand in devising the rules by which it operates and can control almost nothing that happens in it, and we find ourselves continually frustrated, surprised, and puzzled by the things we encounter in it.  In short, we are finite, derivative, and accidental.  Given our situation, many entities, events and processes are 
1.  in fact undetectable given our current limitations, or
2.  in principle undetectable given our derivativity, accidence, and/or finitude.  
Consider the following scenario:  The entire expanse and history of the cosmos we inhabit is encapsulated in the oscillations of a sub-atomic particle in a drop of coffee falling from the cup of an inhabitant of the outerverse sitting at her kitchen table getting ready for work.  The immensity of this outerverse is such that our cosmos's transition from big bang to thermal stasis happens while the drop is still falling.  Entities, events, and processes in this outerverse caused directly the initial conditions which led to the "big bang" starting off our cosmos.  Oscillations of nearby particles in the atom, molecular interactions in the drop of coffee, the gravitational forces pulling the particle and everything around it in the drop of coffee toward the surface of the table -- all contribute indirectly to the forces and entities we experience, and given enough time, some entity, event or process in the outerverse could lead to the sudden destruction of most or all of our cosmos. It must be kept in mind that the outerverse's scale of time and distance is so great relative to our own that even the approach and passing of another sub-atomic particle in the outerverse would take longer than the entire history of our cosmos. 

The immensity of this outerverse makes it undetectable.   There is simply not time enough in the entire history of our cosmos for us to accumulate enough evidence to be able to grasp the makeup of the outerverse or even detect its existence.  Furthermore, the laws of physics familiar to us do not hold in the outerverse's scale of time and distance, just as Newton's laws were found not to hold at the sub-atomic level. Finally, the inhabitants of the outerverse are just as unable to detect our existence or send us any kind of communication or message that we would be able to receive.

I bring up this scenario so that I can remove the issue of religion from the discussion of detectability and scientific method.  Believers in non-physical, non-natural, "spiritual" entities will object that this scenario leaves their perspective on the nature of the cosmos out of the loop.  To show what a nice guy I am, let's bring God into the picture big-time.  Since I am most familiar with and still favorable to Judeo-Christian theism, we will add the following:
1.  The outerverse is a direct, immediate creation of God.
2.  Although our cosmos developed entirely as a direct effect of natural causes, once human beings appeared God began to intervene via miracles (theists can add miraculous elements arbitrarily to this picture).
3.  Even though some kind of evolutionary process led to the appearance of life in this cosmos, including human beings, theists are free to add initial conditions that would preclude objectionable aspects of the evolution theorized to have occurred in our world -- parasitism, predation, sexual competition, etc.
4.  Humankind fell.  Theists are free to assign the same cognitive effects of this fall as they believe occurred in the "fall of Adam."
5.  God provided specific direct revelation about our cosmos via whatever mechanism theists want to propose.   He told humankind that He created the cosmos and everything in it.  But he specified no mechanisms, spoke nothing about the existence of the outerverse and left no instructions about what humankind could or should do to try to find out how He did it.

So here we have a thoroughly "supernatural" reality.  We  have one case, the outerverse, which meets only the minimum requirements of the correct defnition of supernatural:  entities, events, and processes in the outerverse are undetectable, unobservable, and unmeasurable.  In this case, immense time and space are sufficient to render the outerverse supernatural according to Arthur Strahler's definition.  On the other hand, we have a personal, "spiritual" God.  He fits the minimum requirements for being "supernatural" but in addition has the characteristics of intelligence and purpose.

In this kind of universe human science would always be incomplete in principle, not only in regard to an explanation of the human condition but even in regard to the origin, nature and history of the natural world.  Those outerverse entities, events, and processes would keep breaking the regularities proposed by scientists working purely with data discoverable in our cosmos.  Not that all scientists would accept this view of reality.  Some would strive for complete explanation of the history of the cosmos anyway, but their theories would inevitably  fall victim to discovery of anomalous data.   Religious thinkers from other traditions would almost certainly seize on the opportunity provided by the inability of scientists to explain major features of the cosmos by providing their own explanations.  These explanations would almost certainly be incorrect and if subject to falsification by scientific methods would also fall victim eventually to anomalous data.  The position of those holding to God's revelation,  principled agnosticism, might gain strength over time.

It is possible that the scientific community would eventually arrive at a consensus that it had "hit a wall" regarding an explanation of the history of the cosmos.  Further theoretical progress would not be possible unless the community found a way to gather new types of evidence that can help it penetrate the mysteries it keeps bumping up against.  In the past scientists have been able to overcome this type of barrer by developing new instruments and methods.  That could happen in this case too, but under all but the most optimistic and unlikely outcomes it would only put off the day of reckoning.   For example, if humans found a way to break out of our cosmos and survive in the outerverse the previously unaccountable mysteries could come under examination.

But the far more likely outcome is what we are interested in here.  Faced with apparently insurmountable roadblocks to theoretical progress using standard scientific methods and procedures, what alternatives, if any, would the community consider?  We have already ruled out revelation.  Deductive reasoning has already been thoroughly discredited. 

What non-empirical methods are left?   Transcendantal argument?  "Unless we assume the existence of an outerverse we have no way to account for the phenomena we encounter in our cosmos."   This is really just a sloppy, vague, and untestable variant of standard scientific method.  When the argument is provided with a mathematical form and proposes specific tests using detectable, observable, measurable data that can confirm/disconfirm it, it would get promoted to a genuine theory and no longer be an alternative to normal scientific procedure.  Otherwise, it is a cheap substitute and scientists would be likely to say, "Interesting but unhelpful." 

Would there be a divide between "believing" and "unbelieving" scientists over this matter?   I can't come up with a reason why there would be.  What would either party gain by opening up science to non-empirical methods?  Do they offer a new kind of evidence that can stand up to critical scrutiny, that will inspire greater confidence in the theory by friend and foe alike?  No.  This would be enough for the vast majority of the community, "believer" and "unbeliever" alike, to reject them.

In the end, the scientific community would be more likely to insist that their theories stay tied to detectable, obvervable, measurable data and live with incomplete theories than they would be to change their requirements so that they could have complete explanation.   In the next post I would like to begin an examination of approaches to "methodological naturalism" in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

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