Common Narrative with ID on MN

@pnelson and @terrellclemmons, I was hoping to find some common ground in an agreed upon narrative of ID and MN (methodological naturalism.) We could still disagree about MN, but I want to have this common starting point.

As I understand it,

  1. Using God as an explanation is disallowed by MN in scientific work.

  2. ID was originally conceived in the 1990s to work around this restriction.

  3. The idea was to discuss an intelligent designer rather than God, design rather than creation, and remove references to Scripture. In fact this was all an attempt to abide by MN.

  4. Pragmatically speaking, this strategy was found not to work. Scientists still invoked MN against ID, much as they did against creationism.

  5. Consequently there has been a shift in ID. Rather than work within MN, more and more ID proponents want to get rid of MN in questions of origins. As a result, many are now willing to mention “God” and “creation” in their work, because the earlier strategy of avoiding these words did not work.

  6. Many ID proponents believe that MN is being unjustly and capriciously used against them. Trying to play by traditional MN rules did not work for them, so maybe creationists were right and we just need to get rid of those rules. Looking at organizations like Biologos, it seems the theological price of adopting MN may be too high.

  7. This makes MN the current dividing line, for many, in the origins conversations. It has also renewed energy within ID to attack MN directly,

Of course there are exceptions to every rule. @AJRoberts is OEC and has no problem with MN. Behe seems to still be working from the 1990s paradigm, though he does also say that MN is unfairly applied.

So, does this sound like a narrative that seems accurate to ID supporters here, especially those in the know? I was careful to explain this in a way that does not tip the scales either way as to the legitimacy of MN. For the record, I think MN is legitimate, but that debate is a separate issue. At present I’m more interested in seeing if we can arrive at a common narrative.

What do you think?

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  1. Using God as an explanation is disallowed by MN in scientific work.

Agreed.

  1. ID was originally conceived in the 90s to work around this restriction.

Not sure about this. Steve Meyer traces his involvement in what came to be known (much later) as ID to the early-to-mid 1980s, and his reading of books such as Thaxton, Bradley, Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin (published 1984 – note the date; ID as currently understood lay more than a decade in the future, with Behe 1996, Dembski 1998, etc). My own skepticism of MN owes much more to the anti-demarcationist arguments of philosopher of science Larry Laudan (no admirer of ID) and other philosophers, than to any “work around MN” strategy. Put a question mark next to (2) for me.

  1. The idea was to discuss an intelligent designer rather than God, design rather than creation, and remove references to Scripture. In fact this was all an attempt to abide by MN.

Definitely no. At a major meeting in Spokane WA, organized by Charles Thaxton in June 1988, on the theme “Origins of Information Content in DNA,” speakers included the agnostic Hubert Yockey, the agnostic Michael Denton, and Roman Catholic, theologically ill-defined folks, and a wide array of Protestant scientists and philosophers – all interested in challenging standard evolutionary theory and OOL scenarios. How to find commonality? Won’t be theology, but a generic notion of “intelligence,” defined as irreducible to physics, would work for discussion purposes. No interest in abiding by MN, given that MN excludes (by definition) any explanatory appeal to intelligence as a basic constituent of reality.

  1. Pragmatically speaking, this strategy was found not to work. Scientists still invoked MN against ID, much as they did against creationism.

As noted, there wasn’t any “anti-MN” strategy, because being anti-MN falls out naturally from any research program using intelligence to explain (again, where “intelligence” is irreducible to physics). Of course, some scientists still invoked MN, but not all – some said, “OK, we’ll give up MN, but only if you have something better – specific and testable – to replace it with.”

  1. Consequently there has been a shift in ID. Rather than work within MN, more and more, ID wants to get rid of MN in questions of origins, and are consequently more open to discussing “God” and “creation” in their work, because the earlier strategy of avoiding these words did not work.

No. MN was never a live option for any ID theorist.

  1. It has seemed to ID that MN is being unjustly and capriciously used against them. Trying to play by the rules did not work, so maybe creationists were right and we just need to get rid of the rule. Looking at organizations like Biologos, it seems the theological price of adopting MN is too high.

Science flourished without MN. Why adopt it now? To keep ID and nasty ideas such as “creationism” at bay. But, as philosopher Steve Dilley has pointed out, MN is held inconsistently by evolutionary biologists and scientists generally. They invoke it when it serves their ends, and ignore it when they want to use theology (see, e.g., Gould’s “panda’s thumb” argument).

  1. This makes MN the current dividing line, for many, in the origins conversations. It has also renewed energy within ID to attack MN directly,

MN is the current dividing line because the ID community is united by the bare proposition that “intelligent design is empirically detectable in nature.” In order for design to be detectable, of course, it must have some observational or empirical content which does not reduce ultimately to physics. That’s intelligence as a distinct cause, issuing in distinct effects. MN forbids appeals to intelligence (i.e., as a basic or fundamental constituent of reality). There’s the conflict.

I’d suggest you contact Steve Dilley at St Edwards University (Austin, TX), as he is the most knowledgeable philosopher of science currently working on this topic (wrote his PhD on it at Arizona).

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Thanks @pnelson. Where does Phil Johnson’s view of MN fit into your story?

We could go over other disagreements detail elsewhere, but I do need to register them here.

  1. MN is not new in science. It appeared before Bacon (but named something else).

  2. Intelligence fits just fine within MN, whether or not it’s reducible to physics. The issue is divine intelligence, and the attempt to recognize design without considering the designer (neither approach works in science).

How would you rewrite your narrative in a way that could be common to us?

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That’s not true. Scientists and detectives detect design all the time with such content.

I don’t know of any examples in real scientists’ study of intelligent designs in which the intelligence imputed to the design gets separated from the physical mechanisms involved in implementing the design. Why is the ID movement afraid to go there?

I think that you are equivocating between intelligence in general and a very special kind of intelligence disembodied from any physical realm.

Archeologists use MN. Police detectives use MN. Car mechanics use MN (to be fair, they are usually looking for unintelligent things done by the operator). Do you object to what they do?

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To be clear, I do not want to litigate our differences, but see if there is a salient way of explaining this we could both agree to.

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To be honest, @swamidass, I think @pnelson is light years ahead of me on this topic (in fact, I think I feel 10% smarter just by being tagged in the same sentence), so thank you very much for the compliment :slight_smile: ), plus he’s way closer to the ID community than I am.

I’m happy to answer any question if you wants to hear from me specifically, and I might chime in here or there, but right now, I’m inclined to let his response Common Narrative with ID on MN drive the ensuing discussion, and I’ll just watch whatever follows from that.

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That’s okay. Was there anything he wrote that you particularly agree with? Or was surprising to you?

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Josh asked:

Where does Phil Johnson’s view of MN fit into your story?

When I first met Phil (1989, on his return from his London sabbatical), he had no interest in ID, which as a viewpoint actually was yet to be named. From 1991-1993, as Darwin on Trial was gaining a wide readership, Phil still had no interest in ID. He just wanted to move “Darwinism” off its cultural pedestal. I vividly recall in June 1993 tag-team arguing with Jonathan Wells, with our persuasion directed in Phil’s direction, as the three of us drove in Phil’s car south from the San Jose airport to Watsonville CA, at the start of the famous Pajaro Dunes ID meeting. Wells and I explained that, if scientists were Phil’s audience, they preferred an incomplete theory to no theory at all. Critics of “Darwinism” needed to put a positive account of their own on the table for scrutiny.

So, at least initially, Phil’s critique of naturalism was entirely focused on taking down “Darwinism,” not making space for ID. He told Wells and me that he “just didn’t care about all that” [namely, ID]. Jonathan will independently confirm this, if you ask him.

  1. MN is not new in science. It appeared before Bacon (but was named something else).

Even before Bacon, plenty of philosophical advice was dished out about how to do natural philosophy, not dubbed “science” until Whewell changed terminology in the mid-19th c. But whatever advice or rules were dished out, they didn’t disqualify biological ID (known mostly as “creation” at the time), because Darwin had to argue as follows in the opening of the Origin of Species (1859; my emphasis):

“I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained—namely, that each species has been independently created—is erroneous.”

T.H. Huxley and other members of Darwin’s coterie carried out a relentless campaign in the decades after 1859 to ensure a permanent place for naturalism as the only acceptable philosophy of science. If MN had already been established, none of that would have been necessary.

  1. Intelligence fits just fine within MN, whether or not it’s reducible to physics. The issue is divine intelligence, and the attempt to recognize design without considering the designer (neither approach works in science).

This only adds to the bankruptcy of MN. No one ever reduces intelligence to physics (which I am using as a shorthand for any non-intentional, undirected cause), nor do they even try, because the diagnostic effects assigned to “intelligence” would not be sufficiently explained by any strictly physical cause, where no agent could be implicated. It’s the agent that does the explanatory work.

Saying that design is fine, as along as the designer isn’t God, only tells me (again) that MN is a ridiculous, question-begging rule. Critics of biological ID are perfectly happy to test the idea against data and challenge it with new theory (e.g., Avida, which was devised in large measure to refute Mike Behe), but they always have MN in their hip pocket as an all-purpose refuter should everything else fail:

https://evolutionnews.org/2014/09/methodological_1/

How would you rewrite your narrative in a way that could be common to us?

I think we should ask Clinton Ohlers to step in with an historical account that we could both endorse.

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It would be great for you to try.

I would welcome help from @TedDavis and @rcohlers.

Well I agree the distinction makes no sense within naturalism. The distinctiom, however, is alive and well in theology though, because there is a necessary distinction between God and His creation.

These are all points of disagreement though. What are the points of agreement? Perhaps:

  1. MN rules out God as an explanatory force in scientific explanations.

  2. ID does not like MN, and has been lobbying against it for a while.

  3. For now and the foreseeable future, Mainstream science works by MN, whether we like it or not.

  4. One concern is that MN might seep out of science, affecting our beliefs on many things. This is IDs objection to BL and TE.

  5. Somehow, following MN, I made space for the de novo creation of Adam and Eve. An important question: how?

Do you agree with those 5 points?

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I don’t disagree with anything, but the backstory of some of the early ID theorists is new information to me and interesting because science is a human enterprise. I particularly agree with this:

I realize MN has been the rule in mainstream science for some time now, but I don’t see why anyone who believes the Judeo-Christian understanding of God is actually true should have to limit the causes they may invoke to only those causes explainable within MN.

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I suppose I just don’t think this is true from a historical point of view. Christians, it seems, were the ones who invented MN, under a different name.

Thanks, as that is my main goal here. If that last list is common ground it is the right place to start.

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Perhaps I can help explain. It is NOT about “limiting causes”. For many of us it is about maintaining appropriate distinctions between science and philosophy. It is entirely appropriate to appeal to God as a cause when discussing philosophy (and theology)—but science is the study of natural causes and it involves a collection of methodologies which have been established for a very long time now. Science does NOT depend upon the same methodologies as philosophy and theology.

Is it appropriate to appeal to God in the course of a geometry proof? Even though I consider God to be the ultimate creator of all which underlies mathematics, I would never claim that restricting classical geometry to that which can be demonstrated by compass and straight-edge is somehow “leaving out God.” Geometry and philosophy are not the same thing.

I often wonder if the desire by some to redefine science as if it were nothing but philosophy is a recognition that most people today have far greater respect for science than for philosophy. Is that a good reason to redefine science as if it is no different from philosophy?

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This is pretty interesting.

I’m still not sure how to process @pnelson’s marginalization of Johnson. That doesn’t compute. I must be missing something.

Of note, Walter Bradley (to whom @pnelson refers) gives a ringing endorsement of the GAE. What I am doing in this book really is a category scrambler.

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… is a philosophical statement about science. Put differently, it is a philosophical constraint on what counts as science.

I realize it has been established for a very long time now, but thank you for the explanation.

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I think many scientists would argue that it’s not so much a philosophical constraint as a description of how science actually works. Science doesn’t really have the tools and methods to assess supernatural causes.

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Yes. And I sometimes have to remind my fellow evangelicals that it was Christian philosophers of past centuries (and not alleged and stereotypical “evil atheists”) who recognized why Natural Philosophy needed to operate under methodological constraints which avoided the confusions caused by inserting theology and philosophy into all investigations of the natural world. In doing so they developed the Scientific Method and what eventually became modern science. When appropriate distinctions are maintained, both better science and better theology are fostered.

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I had no intention of marginalizing Phil. Far from it: in 2006, Marcus Ross and I published a chapter, “The Taxonomy of Teleology,” in the IVP anthology honoring Phil Johnson, Darwin’s Nemesis, where we wrote that Phil’s “key insight” was his

discovery that naturalism – that is, not the detailed narrative of evolution, but its underlying epistemology – had become the strongest commitment of modern science since Darwin’s time. The evolutionary narrative changed from one year to the next, sometimes wildly so…the naturalistic commitment was a constant, so deep that in most cases it was entirely tacit. (p. 264)

My comment about Phil should be read in light of your OP proposition (2): “ID was originally conceived in the 1990s to work around the [MN] restriction.” I know the history to be otherwise, making this proposition false. Phil Johnson’s highlighting of the role of naturalism in the foundations of evolution was intended as a critique of “Darwinism,” and not at all to provide an avenue of acceptability for ID. ID as a scientific idea lay several years in the future. As ID began, Phil was indifferent to the project. The 1993 Pajaro Dunes meeting was convened to critique “Darwinism” (i.e., naturalistic evolution as taught in textbooks and universities). The original Pajaro letter of invitation, on UC-Berkeley letterhead, was entitled “Problems and Prospects of the Darwinian Paradigm.”

My revised phrasing of your new set of five propositions, with changes in italics:

  1. MN rules out God as a cause in scientific explanations.

  2. In principle, ID conflicts with MN, because of (1).

  3. For now and the foreseeable future, mainstream science claims to work by MN, whether we like it or not.

  4. Naturalism (including MN) conflicts with Christianity at the latter’s very foundations. “No one can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24). MN corrodes the rationality of theism, and finally, destroys rationality itself. In practice, therefore, MN is held inconsistently by nearly all of its proponents.

Josh, I’m unsure what this next point means:

  1. Somehow, following MN, I made space for the de novo creation of Adam and Eve. An important question: how?

If I had to guess (I haven’t looked at your book MS yet), I would say that your Adam & Eve hypothesis renders their de novo creation invisible to normal scientific analysis. An evolutionary geneticist would say there is no evidence for, or against, the hypothesis.

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Paul, this is quite puzzling. Does a mechanic “serve two masters” if he refuses to consider God as an explanation for why a car’s engine doesn’t run? It’s one thing to disagree that MN is necessary for science. It’s another to accuse people who don’t agree with you as serving another master besides God. Since you quoted Matthew 6:24, we should also consider the surrounding context of that verse:

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Jesus was speaking in the context of serving God and money: commanding us to store up treasures in heaven rather than treasures on Earth. I cannot see how this applies to the practice of science with regards to MN, other than that as a Christian scientist, science is not the greatest or ultimate goal of life - instead, it is doing things which have eternal, not just worldly value. Serving God must not be sacrificed in the pursuit of scientific success. But this has nothing to do with MN. I can serve God even if I practice my science assuming MN, just as a mechanic can do so as well.

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Let’s take the best short formulation of MN that I know, namely, as expressed by the National Academy of Sciences (1998):

“The statements of science must invoke only natural things and processes.”

I’ve bolded “natural” here, because that term carries the weight of this proposition. “Natural” in this context means “derived from physical, material, or otherwise non-intentional, non-mental causes.” Thus, MN isn’t simply a neutral rule about proper method; it carries with it an ontology, about what is real – i.e., what exists and can be detected by empirical means.

The “master” in this setting who must be obeyed is the ONTOLOGY: God as an agent, or simply irreducible intelligence as a primary cause, turns out under MN not to be real in the same way (scientifically) that a wave function or a chromosome or a chemical element are real. When we make something unreal, we eliminate it from our box of possibilities, even if (sub specie aeternitatis) it is true.

Let’s say an automobile engine malfunctions. The mechanic runs through a diagnostic tree of possible causes, and at the end of the day, tells you, as he wipes his hands with a rag, smiling grimly, “Somebody dumped sugar into your gas tank – sorry about that.”

Would you tell him you only want a natural – meaning non-intelligent – cause? That agency is philosophically unacceptable to you? For the purposes of mechanical inference, that the agent was God Himself or a misguided teenager down the street, doesn’t matter: an agent acted to bring about an effect.

My wife is a pediatric gastroenterologist. On occasion, over the many years of her medical practice, she has needed to consider what’s known as Munchausen’s-by-proxy. My wife’s diagnostic (logic) tree includes agency – someone is slowly poisoning a child, by deliberate intent.

This is ordinary rationality (as several commentators above have already noted). It only becomes problematic and scary when the agent in question is no longer H. sapiens, and the event in question is something like the origin of life or the Cambrian Explosion.

Bottom line: two masters means two causal ontologies. One ontology includes the possibility of God’s action; the other does not.

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No, it doesn’t. You are building a ridiculous straw man (bolded and italicized).

And mental things exist and can be detected by empirical means. Your definition is false.

No, I’m telling you that an intelligent cause, sugar in the gas tank, is natural.

Yes, and she is using MN.

That looks like a false bifurcation fallacy to me. You are perfectly free to empirically test the hypothesis that design occurred in the Cambrian “explosion.” Please stop pretending that anyone else is tying your hands.

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