Intelligent Design Icon Intelligent Design

Atheist Fundamentalism and the Limits of Science

Juno Walker at Letters from Vrai has responded to my post Dr. Pigliucci and Fundamentalism in Science Education. Dr Massimo Pigliucci published an essay in The McGill Journal of Education in which he made the absurd claim that effective science education would dissuade students from a belief in Heaven. I pointed out in my post that Heaven wasn’t exactly a proper subject for the scientific method and that the assertion that science education was even applicable to a belief in Heaven was fundamentalism — a kind of atheist fundamentalism. The conflation of methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism — science and atheism — is no more acceptable pedagogy than the conflation of science and creationism. Atheism and creationism are philosophical inferences, and, irrespective of the truth of either faith, neither is consistent with the scientific method. The scientific method — methodological naturalism — is the data-driven study of nature. It’s based on natural, not supernatural, claims. The irony is that the McGill Journal of Education published Dr. Pigliucci’s atheist broadsheet for fundamentalism in science education, but would never publish a creationist broadsheet for fundamentalism in science education.

Walker cites Darwinist philosopher Barbara Forrest to defend the assertion that atheism is a scientifically justifiable inference. Dr. Forrest:

…the relationship between methodological and philosophical naturalism, while not one of logical entailment, is the only reasonable metaphysical conclusion, given (1) the demonstrated success of methodological naturalism, combined with (2) the massive amount of knowledge gained by it, (3) the lack of a method or epistemology for knowing the supernatural, and (4) the subsequent lack of evidence for the supernatural. The above factors together provide solid grounding for philosophical naturalism, while supernaturalism remains little more than a logical possibility.

Dr. Forrest is mistaken. The demonstrated success of methodological naturalism has no bearing on the truth or falsehood of philosophical naturalism, because the assertion of philosophical naturalism (there are no extra-natural things) is outside the purview of methodological naturalism (the study of natural things). Methodological naturalism is defined by its inability to adjudicate extra-natural questions.

Dr. Forrest’s claim (3) that philosophical naturalism must be true because of “the lack of a method or epistemology for knowing the supernatural” is nonsense. The methods for knowing the supernatural are by definition beyond the scope of methodological naturalism and are properly philosophical methods, not scientific methods. Forrest’s implicit assertion that there is no philosophical “method or epistemology for knowing the supernatural” is an assertion that two and a half millenia of Western philosophy don’t exist. What of Platonic Forms, Thomist proofs for the existence of God, Anslem’s and Descartes’ and Plantinga’s Ontological Arguments, and Kant’s Argument From Morality? It’s safe to say that most of Western philosophy addresses issues that transcend our direct experience of the natural world. Ironically, Forrest’s use of the scientific method to assert that the supernatural world doesn’t exist employs one of the few philosophical methodologies that can’t address questions outside of the natural world.

Methodological naturalism — the scientific method — precludes all extra-natural philosophical constraints on interpretation of physical data. That’s the point of methodological naturalism — the method of data collection and interpretation must be without extra-natural assumptions. Colloquially, methodological naturalism is ‘following the physical evidence, unencumbered by extra-natural inference.’ The design inference is based on evidence about the natural world. It is a violation of methodological naturalism to categorically exclude the design inference based on the postulate that the supernatural does not exist. The scientific method hews to evidence, not to philosophical dogma.

The approach to science in the era before the scientific method, much like the approach of atheists and Darwinists today, was to apply a priori philosophical constraints to the study of natural phenomena. The ancients modeled planetary motion as perfect circles because of the philosophical assumption that heavenly bodies must move ‘perfectly,’ and non-circular motion was considered imperfect and thus impermissible. Johannes Kepler’s laws of elliptical planetary motion were an early triumph of the scientific method because Kepler discarded philosophical dogma and considered only the evidence. Of course, Kepler was a devout Christian (as were nearly all Enlightenment scientists), and he interpreted the laws of planetary motion as God’s geometrical plan for the universe. Philosophical constraints — a priori constraints — on interpretation of data are inconsistent with the scientific method, but philosophical reflection on the data isn’t. Newton derived his laws of motion from mathematical considerations and from data, yet he believed that the fabric of space and time in which the laws acted was the mind of God. Philosophical reflection on scientific data — including reflection on supernatural causation — has a long and quite honorable history.

So what of Forrest’s fourth claim: that the truth of philosophical naturalism is supported by “the subsequent lack of evidence for the supernatural”? It’s a bizarre inference, as divorced from empirical evidence as could be imagined. The past several centuries of Western science have revealed a universe created ex nihilo, governed by astonishingly intricate mathematical laws accessible to the human mind and characterized by properties of forces and energy and matter so closely tied to the existence of human life that cosmologists have had to invoke the existence of countless other universes to elide the anthropic implications. Life itself depends on a code — remarkably like a computer language — to produce, run and replicate cellular components that are themselves best described as intricate nanotechnology.

Here’s the atheist interpretation of this scientific evidence: atheism is the only permissible explanation. Atheists are entitled to their opinion, but they have no business teaching students that atheist fundamentalism defines the limits of science.

Michael Egnor

Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics, State University of New York, Stony Brook
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and is an award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.