Monday, January 26, 2015

Does Naturalism Work?

Debates between naturalists and supernaturalists have become ever more popular. Often these topics become entwined with the evolution versus creation discussion. These topics progress to a variety of related cultural and personal issues. Debate events tend to order the audience along a spectrum of positions. Previously held positions are affirmed but minds are changed infrequently. Our recent posts of the Ruse/Rana debate on the origin of life and the complexity of cells highlighted significant differences.    

Dr. Ruse described the wonders of our scientific knowledge. For instance, he referenced the appearance of prokaryotes (early single celled microbes—simple in form, but marvelous in biochemical complexity), followed later by eukaryotes (multicellular organisms), and still later, the naturalists’ enigma, the unprecedented Cambrian Explosion. How is naturalism pragmatically justified, if not scientifically explained according to Ruse? “It works!” he claimed. We have discovered many truths of the workings of the natural world in recent decades using the naturalistic methods of science. With regard to origin of life and cell complexity Ruse stated: We will eventually discover much more truth, perhaps even the answer to how life first began. This is one way adherents of naturalism defend and justify their approach. It is known as “argument to the future.” Future generations will discover the secret, they claim.

Scientific knowledge has expanded beyond our dreams. This is fact, but not a pillar of support for naturalism or any other argument. On one occasion I heard a Christian leader, a well-known evolutionary creationist, voice an “appeal to the future” with respect to the potential discovery of a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life. In regard to the life origin question, appeal to the future is woefully inadequate in support of naturalism. 

Naturalists do not credit or even consider a supernatural miracle, according to Dr. Ruse: Naturalist scientists have a mind set where scientific laws rule. There are no miracles. We are slowly getting the picture. Even though science still faces difficulties, we are slowly grasping what is going on in the question of origins. What about volcanic vents, salt water, and clay minerals, he wonders.  

Naturalists like Michael Ruse do not envision an origin of life or cellular complexity “miracle.” Naturalists claim proposals of miracles are a “Bible position.” They propose that when we cite a creation miracle to account for life’s origin and complexity, we are no longer “doing science.” Naturalist scientists would discount persuasive creationist claims that proposals of intelligent agency to account for life origin and design of the cell makes full use of the established principles of scientific method.

Many organizations report statements uttered by scientists on both sides of the naturalism/supernaturalism question. One example is the IDEA (Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness) Center. Their “Origins and Complexity of Life” site contains hundreds of unedited quotes. This passage from H. J. Lipson (1910-1991), professor of physics at University of Manchester, is unusual in that it contains the word “creation:” 

If living matter is not, then, caused by the interplay of atoms, natural forces, and radiation, how has it come into being?…I think, however, that we must go further than this and admit that the only acceptable explanation is creation. I know that this is anathema to physicists, as indeed it is to me, but we must not reject a theory that we do not like if the experimental evidence supports it.”

Debate partner Dr. Fazale Rana’s presentation was sharply distinct from the case made by Dr. Michael Ruse. Whereas Ruse claimed those who appeal to a creation miracle are no longer “doing science,” it was Rana who gave a coherent, highly organized and credible scientific presentation of multiple instances from geologic history where the work of a supernatural intelligent agent was necessary and clearly evident. (We contemplate reporting on some of Rana’s salient points in future posts.)   The theological dimension is apparent. Likewise, the religious connection is difficult to deny. Creation acts initiated by God are indeed manifestations of religious belief. 

Notwithstanding the accommodation many scientists voice for private religious beliefs, most scientists are trained to disregard the relevance of theistic reality in their chosen professional field. Theistic realism is subordinate to scientific realism by agreed-upon policy.  Theistic realism is the proposal that methodological naturalism should be replaced by a philosophy which would allow certain supernatural explanations particularly in topics that impact theology. Scientific realism affirms that both observable and unobservable aspects of the world are described by the sciences. 

Theistic realism (sometimes acknowledging the supernatural) and scientific realism (reliance only on naturalistic science) are two different epistemic entities supported by two different world views.