When scientists decide they know what the right answer is, despite what the scientific evidence may indicate, then bad things can happen. This was the theme of my recent book Science’s Blind Spot, where I explored the history and consequences of the mandate for naturalism in science. For about two hundred years before Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution, theologians, philosophers and scientific investigators promoted a series of religious and philosophical arguments that mandated purely naturalistic explanations for the history of the world.
Darwin’s book, where he used a plethora of these metaphysical arguments for his otherwise scientifically weak theory of evolution, was something of a capstone for the movement. The foundation was in place, and as one historian put it, Darwin (and Wallace) did not conclude that evolution was true after discovering a mechanism, but rather first believed evolution was true and then searched for a mechanism. 1
The problem with science today is not that the naturalistic approach might occasionally be inadequate. The problem is that science would never know any better. This is science’s blind spot. When scientific problems arise, it is always assumed that the correct naturalistic explanation has not yet been found. Scientists may not be able to explain love very well, but they are sure there must be a way.
Today, science is assumed to be able to provide a true, or approximately true, explanation for all things. Simply put, naturalism is assumed always to be true. And so science can (and often does) proceed with quite unlikely explanations as though they were true.
Of course evolutionists do not agree with any of this. But when they disagree they simply reinforce the very problems they are attempting to refute. Jitse van der Meer’s review2 of Science’s Blind Spot is a good example. In Science’s Blind Spot I point out several problems with evolution with which van der Meer takes issue. For instance, consider the human eye. It is of course no surprise that the eye, from its molecular mechanisms on up, is incredibly complex. What is less well known is that the human eye is uncannily similar to the eye of the squid.
Evolution is supposed to be a blind, unguided process that has no particular end in view. It is an open-loop process that meanders through an astronomical design space influenced only by the unguided events of the moment. Given the enormous size of that design space, it is unlikely that evolution would arrive at a similar design in independent lineages, in different environments and starting from different initial conditions. But in the origin of the human and squid eye, and myriad other examples in biology, this is precisely what we must believe occurred.
The repeated finding of astonishingly complex, intricate, and similar designs in otherwise distant species is one of the profound discoveries in biology. It is like finding the same Rube Goldberg machine in your backyard and on the Moon. And it certainly has implications for evolution. Can we really ascribe this, without a second thought, to yet another amazing and mysterious aspect of natural law? Unfortunately evolution prohibits any such pondering, and van der Meer easily dismisses the evidence as a nonissue. After all, writes van der Meer, “The differences in detail between the vertebrate eye and the squid eye are what make it possible to distinguish them from similarities due to common descent […] Thus common descent is not falsified and does not need to be patched up.”
While this is an interesting point and worthy of discussion, it hardly resolves the question at hand. Evolutionists, who believe the species arose on their own, often fail to perceive obvious problems with the theory. If one has already accepted that the human eye arose on its own, then what cannot happen? So what if biological lightning strikes twice. I suppose the evolutionist’s credulousness is understandable. What is disappointing is their inability to view the evidence from a more theory-neutral perspective.
Unfortunately, from there van der Meer’s review degrades into baseless and bizarre criticisms. In his search for errors van der Meer accuses me of a variety of positions which I neither hold nor espouse in the book. First, he somehow concluded that I use “Popper’s falsification view of scientific progress as the gold standard for science.” Actually, I discussed the pros and cons of predictions and falsification. I then discussed a variety of failed evolutionary predictions, not in deference to Popper but, as I discussed in the book, because evolutionists routinely overestimate evolution’s prediction power. This reminds me of so many debates where evolutionists belittle the skeptic for inquiring into the claims of Neo-Darwinism.
Next, van der Meer somehow determined that I ignored “the successes of explanation in terms of natural causes.” Actually, I repeatedly praised such successes of science. This response is typical and I have incurred it many times. Criticize naturalism and you will be said to be rejecting all of science. Naturalists are unable to take theory evaluation at face value because it raises the specter that naturalism may be insufficient.
Or again, van der Meer concludes that I must be ignorant of common philosophical terminology as I confuse scientific deduction with mere empirical observation, and classify panspermia as a supernatural explanation. But I wrote no such things and here again I am reminded of an unfortunate aspect of the origins debate. The issues are so heartfelt and the atmosphere so charged that partisans often pigeon-hole those who do not agree with them into untenable straw man positions. These contrived positions make for easy targets and convenient justification to quickly dismiss entire viewpoints. True to form, van der Meer concludes that the entire volume is unreliable. Ironically, I gave examples of just this problem in Science’s Blind Spot.
If these specific criticisms seem strange, the review becomes more sensible when van der Meer issues his broader criticisms. The thesis of Science’s Blind Spot–that the mandating of naturalism in science for non scientific reasons may not be healthy–is unacceptable to evolutionists. They argue that naturalism must be mandated, and that it is crucial for science’s well being. As van der Meer explains:
But explaining natural phenomena as the result of divine action is a science stopper. Not only do we not know why God made things the way they are so that predictions might be made, but it is also impossible to manipulate God as a variable in a scientific experiment. I leave aside that going in this direction would be spiritually inappropriate and also that it is theologically questionable to assume that God’s action in the world can be conceived in terms of causal action.
In typical fashion van der Meer elucidates the evolutionary position. Science must be rigidly and purely naturalistic, not because scientific conclusions make it the obvious choice, but for non-scientific reasons. Naturalism is required both for us and for God. Anything else is bad for both science and religion.
Therefore, it is not the case that naturalistic explanations are merely preferred, or that they are used in a certain subset of problems, such as in the laboratory. No, all of science must adhere to naturalism, regardless of the evidence. No matter how poorly evolution explains biology, the theory will always be promoted.
Science’s Blind Spot challenges the hegemony of naturalism in today’s science as bad for science. This hegemony was motivated and is sustained for non-scientific reasons. While naturalists accuse skeptics of religious motivations, it is in fact naturalists who constrain science with non-scientific beliefs. Ironically, as Science’s Blind Spot argues and van der Meer yet once again confirms, science is dogmatically constrained to naturalism for religious reasons. The blind spot is still there.
1 Janet Browne, The Secular Ark: Studies in the History of Biogeography (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), 169.
2 Jitse van der Meer, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 60:2, 135-6, June 2008.