Nelson: Parabolas and Methodological Naturalism (Again)

@pnelson this the same point you always make about Methodological Naturalism. You really are trapped in a ground hog day purgatory aren’t you! :slight_smile: we weren’t discussing MN and it isn’t Germaine to this conversation. In fact I don’t see that anyone relied upon it here so far.

It seems that with you, what ever the prompt, the answer is “MN is bad.”

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I’ll show Germaine! Now that IS an interesting typo: “Germaine” is someone’s name, “germane” is the adjective for “materially relevant,” but somehow I love the idea of Germaine actually being a person who needs to be persuaded. Go find Germaine – I think she’s napping on the front porch – I have something to show her. :wink:

Anyway, foundational assumptions are often invisible to those holding them. They regard the assumption, insofar as they think about it at all, as co-extensive with reality. In all the time I’ve known you, Josh, you withhold assent from design inferences in biology because you expect a sufficient natural (non-intelligent) cause to be forthcoming – for anything: the origin of cells, macroevolutionary transitions, the unique characters (e.g., language) of Homo sapiens. That expectation represents the spirit of MN. I regret that you see me as a one-note Paul, always harping on MN, but everyone needs a hobby-horse to ride, right?

Parts 2 through 4 of the Naturalistic Parabola series, forthcoming, will demonstrate the relevance of MN to this particular Peaceful Science thread. You should be happy in any case: Peaceful Science is drawing a lot of attention at ENV right now. :slight_smile:

Point taken :slight_smile:

What are the foundational assumptions invisible to you?

No, I don’t think we need this. It would be more interesting if you engaged and understood what was being said.

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Alas, what is “being said” is all downstream of premises I find false, such as the inevitable causal sufficiency of physics (i.e., undirected processes) for events such as writing books. That January 1996 late night conversation with Niles Eldredge, described above, was a slap in the face. He really didn’t want to acknowledge his authorship of his own books.

So it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for what amounts to a complete waste of time.

If a foundational assumption of my own is invisible to me, then I don’t know what it is, now do I? I count on others to see what I am presupposing without awareness.

I think one of your foundational assumptions is that that MN is the most important issue in these discussions. This is such a strong assumption, you can’t tell when there is strong evidence to the contrary.

I do think you are aware of the assumption, but not aware of how much it affects your analysis. Sometimes, reading your discussion about how MN influences everything, it seems self-descriptive, so I wonder if you could see this too.

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This also is quite difficult to understand as correct, for two reasons.

  1. That is not my premise, because I do not believe in the inevitable causal sufficiency of physics.

  2. We can agree and find common ground, even if we have different starting points.

Do you realize you are wrong about my premise? Why not affirm common ground?

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How long have we known each other – six years? Can’t remember exactly, my bad. But in that entire interval, I have never seen the faintest glimmer that you would ever infer design for any biological event or pattern. You keep an open checkbook for undirected physical process and write out generous advance payments to it, if an ID hypothesis ever comes knocking. I’ll have more to say about this in the ENV series (not naming you personally, of course). Yes, you think I’m obsessed with MN, but I see MN in action in your scientific reasoning, and if I ask myself, why do my smartest ID colleagues, who are every bit as bright as Josh, infer design (say, for the origin of first life)? The difference is MN in practice. My ID colleagues stand outside the naturalistic parabola, and have stopped obeying it.

Our common ground is not scientific or philosophical. It’s theological. Obviously that matters to me, and to you, but for the atheists who come here? They are indifferent at best.

So I focus on where you and I disagree, because that’s where these issues are properly joined.

More than just a faint glimmer, I do infer design for biological events and patterns. That is how bad your presuppositions have blinded you here.

We have more common ground than this…but at this point you aren’t interacting with me any ways, but just an image of me in your head…


Name one.

Actually, never mind. Your understanding of “design” is that everything is designed. It’s scientifically useless.

I’m out. I’ll post the links to parts 2-4 of the naturalistic parabola series at ENV when they are ready.

I see that Paul is assuming that libertarian free will is a coherent idea. That too would seem foundational.

Ah, but you don’t infer it scientifically, which is what Paul demands. And you don’t mean the same thing he means by “design”.

Does “scientific uselessness” mean that the belief cannot be meaningful, true, or have a real impact on the rest of our beliefs?

All Christians affirm that everything is created by God. I suppose that statement is scientifically useless, by your definition.


That’s a bit rich, coming from someone deep within in a community whose main argument from design is an argument from ignorance. 99% of the work within the ID community is pointed towards falsifying evolution with the hopes that the claims of design can fill a gap in our knowledge. IOW, a designer is assumed to be the explanation without any positive evidence to back it. No attempts are even made to produce this positive evidence.

All MN requires is empirical evidence and a falsifiable hypothesis. Why would that exclude design?


@pnelson what do you believe is NOT designed in biology? If you believe everything in biology is designed, is it scientifically useless?

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I know you’ve gotten a lot of interest from this one statement, but I find this very interesting.

Let’s say I have a dogmatic position that God, an infinite intelligence, is the ‘creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.’

I grant you this is not very scientifically useful.

But now let’s say that I think there are two classes of things, things created by an infinite intelligence with the involvement of a finite intelligence (cars, computers, i-Phones, etc.) and things created by an infinite intelligence without the involvement of a finite intelligence (rocks, stars, snowflakes, clouds).

I can’t think of a way to set up a scientific program to test for infinite intelligence, because I would believe a piori that the test would only be right if it got a positive result. That would make it very hard to calibrate.

Do you think I could set up a scientific program to test for finite intelligence? Maybe I think aliens might have been involved with starting life on Earth. Some of the people who have historically proposed this as a possibility were no slouches.

Do you think some of the work of the ID community could become useful here? Maybe specified complexity (somewhat modified) could be used to test for the influence of a finite intelligence?

If so, maybe ID could be employed by someone who shares my faith, but the ID tests could only ever find finite intelligence. This is because rocks don’t have specified complexity (or the other criteria) and I nevertheless believe that God made rocks, so I think all those tests are bad for detecting God (infinite intelligence).

Maybe the ID as a scientific program is nonetheless potentially useful (in a modified form) for people like me who hold by faith that God made all things, without exception.

What do you think?


Definitely possibly useful – meaning, empirically fruitful.

As a theist and Christian, I believe that God is the author of all things, seen and unseen. In that sense, design is everywhere, even at the lowest level of physics (maybe even especially there: see, e.g., Jesus making by his verbal instructions to the servants about 150-180 gallons of really fine wine, at the Cana wedding; very little carbon in those clay pots, prior to his instructions; quite a bit of exquisite carbon afterwards – complex and wonderfully drinkable sugars).

But – and this is the critical point – my affirmation of “design is everywhere” does NOT entail that the lowest levels of physical existence are causally sufficient for events like the origin of life, or of animal body plans, or of human moral categories.

That is MN. Physics runs the show, ultimately, even for events like the composition of the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto.

Same here. So you also affirm the “scientifically useless” fact that God designed all things. I suppose there are concerns more important than scientific usefulness, for both you and I.

Neither does my affirmation. My position does not entail that the lowest levels of physical existence are causally sufficient for events like the origin of life, or of animal body plans, or of human moral categories. In would, in fact, insist that these are not sufficient in many cases.

So it seems that you also believe that God designed everything. You really seem to have misidentified the nature of our disagreement @Pnelson.


Methodological naturalism would include the actions of a supernatural designer if those actions could be empirically measured and could be tested. Forces and mechanisms that affect the universe around us are defined as natural, whatever they may be. If God acted within our universe then God would be considered part of nature and would be included in MN just as human actions are included in MN.

If MN is too restrictive and can’t evidence design, then just say so. If ID isn’t scientific then it isn’t scientific, and you can still argue that design is true based on other philosophical approaches. It seems as if the ID community has painted themselves into a corner by trying to make ID look like science. The origin story of the ID movement is founded on the attempt to have ID taught as science, and this has been nothing more than an albatross around the neck of the movement. Out one side of the ID’s mouth we hear that ID is scientific, and out of the other side we hear that science is false. You guys need to pick one.


Hi Paul,

Thanks for your answer. That’s very helpful and suggests there’s not as much difference (surprisingly) between us as I would have imagined.

I agree with you here too. I don’t think chemistry is completely reducible to physics, or that biology is completely reducible to chemistry. If it were, then evolution by natural selection would seem to be a useful fiction for what is in reality some solution to a very complicated Lagrangian with lots of initial conditions. I think there are even some naturalists (like Ladyman and Ross, as I read them) who respect ontological levels for psychology, biology, chemistry, etc. I’m not sure they would adopt that the lowest levels of physical existence would be causally sufficient for anything, because I’m not sure if they think causality properly belongs to physics. In any case, I’d go a lot farther than they would, something along the lines of Koons* or Eleonore Stump (reference below; I can’t find a pdf of this chapter publicly available).

But maybe I’m very wrong and everything can be reduced to physics on an ontological level (I can’t imagine how this would work for human moral categories, among many other things, but alright). Even so, I think I’d still have to retain all these categories and ideas on an epistemological level, because my poor brain can’t make sense of everything happening on the level of pure physics. I think that if there’s a scientific explanation for the origins of life, explanation here would suggest some kind of account I could hope to understand, and I could never understand an account of life’s origin in terms of physics. I couldn’t even understand the hydrolysis of hydrogen cyanide in physics terms.

If it turns out there’s a physics explanation for life and life’s origins, it will be an explanation that will satisfy God alone.

Finally, as a Christian, I believe that there’s causal powers only God has, to create and sustain the universe. Without God there would be nothing. On that level (the level at which cosmological arguments can be made), the lowest levels of physical existence are causally insufficient for the origins of life, or for the origins of snowflakes, or rocks, or anything.

I think we might diverge on a couple of these points, but from what you say, I’m encouraged that the philosophical underpinnings of some of ID are not as different from my own as they seemed.

All that being said, I still don’t see a scientific way to detect God’s activity (and therefore the activity of a generic intelligence) that wouldn’t run contrary to our shared dogmatic beliefs (if I understand you correctly).

Forgot two things at the end:

If that’s what MN is then forget it.

And here’s the Stump reference:

Stump, E., 2012. Emergence, Causal Powers, and Aristotelianism in Metaphysics. Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism, pp.48-68.


I already did that, in the ENV piece linked above. Will have more to say in parts 2-4.

Natural science did not commence with the general acceptance of MN in the mid-to-late 19th century, in the wake of the Darwinian Revolution. Newton’s Principia and the Opticks, the work of Linneaus and John Ray, etc. – design inferences were everywhere. Strictly historically, it is false to say that science requires MN. Darwin himself was educated in a world where he needed to argue for MN, meaning his scientific upbringing – which led to the theory of evolution – occurred without the strictures of MN.

Naturalism requires MN, but that is a different business altogether.

I suspect you and I do not mean the same thing by MN. You say MN means testability. Nope. Testability can be had without MN, which is why so many scientists have critiqued Behe’s, Dembski’s, and Meyer’s work. These ID proposals are fully testable, or vulnerable to refutation, as the proposals say things about the world which we can check.

MN entails a commitment to what kinds of causes exist. Under MN, what does NOT exist (or is in principle undetectable, which amounts to the same thing in practice) is irreducible intelligence, or agency, as an ontologically distinct category.