Meyer on Looking for Croissants in an Art Museum
Stephen Meyer’s new book, Return of the God Hypothesis, contains one of my new favorite analogies for what it’s like to do science under the restrictions of methodological naturalism. (Although, as Steve was quick to inform me when I interviewed him, the analogy is not his own. Proper credit is originally due to Paul Nelson, who is a font of apt analogies at all times!) Here it is: Imagine a man who walks into an art gallery, but instead of expecting a tour of great painters, he is expecting to help himself to some delicious pastries. You see, this man has a problem. He has mistaken the gallery for a bakery.
A bit confused, but undeterred, our hero marches up to the desk and demands to know where the croissants are. Upon being patiently informed that “Sir, this is an art gallery,” he becomes upset at this “gap” in the gallery’s service, or perhaps in the staff’s knowledge. “Bring out the croissants already!” he shouts, pounding the desk while the poor flustered woman at the desk calls for backup. “Come on, I know they’re here somewhere. You just don’t know where they are, so find someone who does!” It’s at this point or very shortly thereafter that the man should feel a firm hand on his shoulder, accompanied by a firm voice saying “Exit’s this way.”
In their own far more suave, academic way, scientists who label ID theory as a “God of the gaps” argument are not unlike the incensed man in the art gallery. As Meyer points out, the “gaps” in the phrase are only “gaps” within a closed system — a system that allows for no outside influx of information or designing intelligence. The materialist assumes from the beginning that all questions must ultimately be answered by natural means (“This is a bakery, the croissants have to be here somewhere!”). Thus, every place where no such solution has yet been found is a perpetually yawning chasm in his mind.
But if once the scientist paused to consider that he might have walked into a different establishment entirely, the chasms would close. His model would be turned on its head. Instead of pounding the desk and demanding the staff cough up their secrets, he would stop and enjoy the Starry Night, marveling at its intricate design. As it is, he persists in begging the question.
Unfortunately, question-begging is the norm in an academic context where science has come to be defined not as the search for the best explanation of everything, but the search for the best naturalistic explanation of everything. Scientists open to intelligent design are relentlessly framed as “science-stoppers,” when in fact they are the ones best able to recognize, appreciate, and study the art in the universal gallery, and in the process take the scientific enterprise to new heights. The God hypothesis is no stop-gap in that enterprise. Rather, it is the culmination of multiple converging lines of positive evidence.
Meyer further pointed out in our interview that such limiting assumptions hinder not only the inquiry into universal origins, but the study of human consciousness and behavior. The whole literature of cognitive science is built on the materialistic assumption that who we are and what we do must ultimately be attributed to nature or nurture. “But,” he said, “if there’s something called genuine agency, human free will, and if that plays a role in understanding human action and human behavior, we again may miss it if we impose a rigidly materialistic methodology on our inquiry.”
Of course, such openness to explanations beyond the material for our own minds and actions will inevitably and uncomfortably open up more questions about the ultimate source of mind, the ultimate source of free will. These are the sorts of questions that some scientists will candidly admit they do not want to pursue. Like Richard Lewontin thundering that “we cannot allow a divine foot in the door,” they will never break out of their self-imposed circle. They will be forever shaking their fist in the direction of the art gallery’s information desk, forever waiting for croissants that will never be delivered.