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How Naturalism Rots Science from the Head Down


Post-truth” was the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year for 2016. The term “post-fact” is also heard more often now. Oxford tells us that “post-fact” relates to or denotes “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Post-fact has certainly hit science. Pundits blame everyone but themselves for its growing presence. But a post-fact and post-truth world are implicit and inevitable in the metaphysical naturalist view (nature is all there is) that is now equated with science and often stands in for it.

Let’s start at the top, with cosmology. Some say there is a crisis in cosmology; others say there are merely challenges. Decades of accumulated evidence have not produced the universe that metaphysical naturalism expects and needs. The Big Bang has not given way to a theory with fewer theistic implications. There is a great deal of evidence for fine-tuning of this universe; worse, the evidence for alternatives is fanciful or merely ridiculous. Put charitably, it would not even be considered evidence outside of current science.

One response has simply been to develop ever more fanciful theories. Peter Woit, a Columbia University mathematician, is an atheist critic of fashionable but unsupported ideas like string theory (Not Even Wrong, 2007) and the multiverse that it supports. Recently, Woit dubbed 2016 the worst year ever for “fake physics” (as in “fake news“). As he told Dennis Horgan recently at Scientific American, he is referring to “misleading, overhyped stories about fundamental physics promoting empty or unsuccessful theoretical ideas, with a clickbait headline.”

Fake physics (he links to a number of examples at his blog) presents cosmology essentially as an art form. It uses the trappings of science as mere decor (the universe is a computer simulation, the multiverse means that physics cannot predict anything…). Conflicts with reality call for a revolution in our understanding of physics rather than emptying the waste basket.

Woit blames the Templeton Foundation for funding this stuff. But Templeton caters, as it must, to an audience. Perhaps a more pressing issue is this: The need to defend the multiverse without evidence has led to a growing discomfort with traditional decision-making tools of science, for example, falsifiability and Occam’s razor. And metaphysical naturalism, not traditional religion, is sponsoring this war on reality.

Can science survive the idea that nature is all there is? The initial results are troubling.  Where evidence can be ignored, theory needs only a tangential relationship to the methods and tools of science. Physicist Chad Orzel expressed disappointment with the 2014 Cosmos remake, saying “I find the choice to prioritize wildly speculative but vaguely inspirational material like panspermia and the whole ‘future cosmic calendar’ stuff kind of disappointing. There’s so much that they haven’t talked about yet that’s based on good, solid evidence, but we’re getting soaring vagueness.” But what if a disquieting amount of the available evidence is unwanted?

The increasingly popular idea that consciousness is an illusion flows together naturally with the new cosmology. Contradictory theories do not seriously conflict because any resolution would just be another user illusion. Readers notice how strange the new science literature sounds but, to the extent that they accept metaphysical naturalism, they can base their objections only on personal discomfort.

What if a theory, such as intelligent design, challenges metaphysical naturalism? It will certainly stand out. And it will stand out because it is a threat to all other theories in the entire system. Merely contradictory or incoherent theories clashing against each other are not a threat in any similar way; there are just so many more of them waiting up the spout.

Could intelligent design theory offer insights? Yes, but they come at a cost. We must first acknowledge that metaphysical naturalism is death for science. Metaphysical naturalists are currently putting the science claims that are failing them beyond the reach of disconfirmation by evidence and casting doubt on our ability to understand evidence anyway.

ID is first and foremost a demand that evidence matter, underwritten by a conviction that reason-based thinking is not an illusion. That means, of course, accepting fine-tuning as a fact like any other, not to be explained away by equating vivid speculations about alternative universes with observable facts. Second, ID theorists insist that the information content of our universe and life forms is the missing factor in our attempt to understand our world. Understanding the relationship between information on the one hand and matter and energy on the other is an essential next discovery. That’s work, not elegant essays.

We will get there eventually. But perhaps not in this culture; perhaps in a later one.  Science can throw so many resources into protecting metaphysical naturalism that it begins to decline. Periods of great discovery are often followed by centuries of doldrums. These declines are usually based on philosophical declines. The prevalence of, for example, fake physics, shows that we are in the midst of just such a philosophical decline. It’s a stark choice for our day.

Photo credit: MrsBrown via Pixabay.