methodological indifference

I’m beginning to wonder if so-called ‘methodological naturalism’ ought to be critiqued on purely philosophical grounds (i.e. not as a sneaky pre-apologetic move).

It seems that many people (against the evidence) are under the impression that ‘science’ supports naturalism (All-is-Nature) more than it supports theism (Nature caused and sustained by Supernature).  But if our scientific observations are to be truly objective, then we must admit that when we look at any particular thing or set of things (or any particular process or set of processes) in what we call the world, we do not find accompanying labels or name-tags that tell us “Made by YHWH” or “Purely Natural: No God Required”.  One must go beyond the evidence (though not leaving it behind!) to make such statements.  The theist knows she is doing this, though she will rightfully claim that she has followed reason in doing so.  The naturalist, however, seems to not often admit that they ‘go beyond the evidence’ to their Naturalism.  Why is this?  Do they think the world screams “not made by any God at all”?  If so, why?

I (in all my lack of importance for both science and the philosophy of science) propose a new term: methodological indifference!

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16 Responses to methodological indifference

  1. Time I re-engaged :) How’s it going?

    Interesting post – I agree to a point – although from an entirely different perspective I guess. Methodological naturalism presupposes naturalism is a meaningful term and I am pretty sure it isn’t (or more precisely it only exists in contrast to supernatural which is equally meaningless). I’d be more inclined to coin something like methodological existentialism (that may actually be a thing, I have no idea lol) or even even more inclined to just call science what it is which is “observation & labelling”. So to put that in pretentious philosophical terms, how about methodological nomenclaturalism? :)

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  2. Hi Ian, always welcome :)

    Yes, terms like ‘naturalism’ (or ‘natural’ and indeed ‘supernatural’-ism) are only as good as the term ‘nature’, which is an interesting one. It seems to me that because we are finite observers, definitions of ‘Nature’ (or, if you prefer, any statement of the ‘total system’) must be necessarily tentative. In this sense, perhaps even the ‘existentialism’ might grasp at too much if you mean it in the sense that ‘methodological existentialism’ would focus on only that which can be observed (and thus that which exists – as if only that which is observed exists). This is why I quite like the simple direction you took at the end of your comment – simply that science is “observation and labeling”. Seeing and naming. Again, it seems that the tool of finite observation of what we call ‘the world’ is not the sort of tool that is fit for making ultimate statements or deriving terms with ‘-ism’ on the end?? Reason, however, I’d think would be?

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  3. Lol, I just saw a site advertising a conference that was (well done) saying we don’t know everything yet, but (not well done) said “We have only identified 4% of the matter in the universe” in the process. How on earth can you calculate a percentage with out knowledge of the whole? If that quote said “known universe” I’d be happy… :)

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  4. I agree with the general nature of your comment about the conference site, although being pedantic we can tell how much mass there is in the universe according to how things behave gravitationally – so the statement in the ad holds I think. Matter is quite a specific thing, as is “the universe”.

    If it said we have identified 4% of the things in the universe then I’d have a bigger problem. Firstly thingness is subjective, and secondly there are nearly an infinite number of things in the universe (finite only in a sickeningly large number kind of way) because a thing becomes a thing via labelling. We observe patterns, label them, and make them things. A cat for example is just a convenient label for a pattern of things that occurs frequently and is found on kitchen benches eating leftovers. There is nothing universal that defines that cat as uniquely thing-like, it is just convenient for the way we think to see it that way.

    I see reason as a tool that seems to help us make more efficient labelling schemes and to lead to labelling other things in a (more) coherent manner. It also gives us the ability to predict new things that we might label in advance and go hunting for. I don’t see it gives any thing beyond that.

    Out of curiosity, what did you mean by “ultimate statements”?

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  5. haha – I’ll leave the mass/thing-ness convo – though it sounds interesting :)

    By ‘ultimate statements’, I’m talking about the sort of statements that would mean we are finished knowing in any science. The relevant senses are a) that we don’t really know fully even how grass grows, because if you keep pedantically ask ‘but why does that thing do that?’ you’ll eventually stop at ‘coz it does’ – which is to stop explaining – which could be done at the level of “it just grows” ;) and b) we don’t know how much of ‘the world’ we are able to see, and this non-ultimate observational perspective necessitates non-ultimate language in our statements describing it – hence ‘known universe’ rather than ‘the whole universe’ (as if we’d ever seen such a thing).

    But yes, we’ve all kinds of reason to trust reason ;) It gives us a good idea of what to predict, look for, etc. Though reality seems to surprise us too :)

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  6. I am not sure we have any reason to expect anything resembling an ultimate statement of that form to ever be found. Part of the problem is that we haven’t really established anything yet other than to catalogue patterns.

    For example we can dissect the growing grass example. For starters both grass and growing are arbitrary labels (albeit useful ones). Given those labels, we can find patterns between those things and other patterns like light, soil etc. I am not sure it is a case of tracing causes back (although I used to think so) but rather a more complex game of pattern connection where we find more and more connections. We don’t really find causes, we find correlating patterns.

    Reason I think is either a method of pattern making or perhaps more aptly a pattern of thinking that leads to more patterns. Dropping all sense of absolutes is quite liberating :)

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  7. “The theist knows she is doing this, though she will rightfully claim that she has followed reason in doing so. The naturalist, however, seems to not often admit that they ‘go beyond the evidence’ to their Naturalism. ”

    Ha. I’ve experienced the opposite more than anything.

    If you could please give us a succinct (bullet-pointed if you like) breakdown of how ‘reason’ allows you to conclude theism instead of naturalism or agnosticism. Like I always say, surely it is more reasonable to abstain from a belief either way than to hitch yourself to theism or naturalism.

    How do you feel about that statement? Ignoring naturalism, could you agree that a position of agnosticism is more reasonable than a position of theism?

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  8. Ian,
    Cheers. Though
    a) I’m quite sure we’ve no evidence for it being a matter of connections rather than (to the exclusion of) causes (does nature wear tags saying “connected only – not caused!” or “caused only, not connected!”?),
    and b) dropping ‘all’ absolutes must be done absolutely – even the absolute of ‘absolutely no absolutes’… ;) I’m not sure it can be done.

    Ryan,
    We’ve had this convo in various ways, at various times, via various media (RDG, H&T, FBchat…). I’ll venture a brief (even ‘succinct”) note here though, since you said ‘please’ :)

    There seem to be two issues with the whole conversation; knowledge (what we can know and what kind of ‘certainty’ we can have) and reason (and how to ‘follow’ it – i.e. ‘be reasonable’). The central point to my mind is that agnosticiam isn’t a ‘position’ that is reasonable or un-reasonable in of itself, so saying agnosticism is ‘reasonable’ must be a claim about having made the best/wisest valuation of ‘the evidence’ and what we can ‘know’ from it. So it (agnosticism) is an epistemological position rather than a God’s-existence position (theism/atheism), so I’m not sure the three belong on the same spectrum-of-reasonable-ness; indeed, the agnostic refrains from taking a place on the spectrum.

    As for following reason, I want to maintain two points that I take to be utterly reasonable. a) both theism/naturalism go ‘beyond’ the evidence with it’s lack of nametags… and b) only theism serves as a real explanation for nature – whereas naturalism halts the explanatory regress at ‘just nature thanks’. ((note: both theist and naturalist believe [i.e. believe in addition to 'evidence'] that there ‘is’ some self-explanatory ‘thing’ – which is either God or nature. The theist just says i) that nature is the sort of thing that must be self-explanatory, for it could have been different (not existing at all, or existing differently), and ii) that an ultimate Being deserving of the word ‘God’ not only must be explanatory, but could not logically/reasonably have its principle of existence/explanation in a higher/prior ‘other’, for that other would be more deserving of the word ‘God’. Whatever ‘God’ is, it is supreme, ultimate Being and couldn’t not be, and couldn’t be otherwise (unlike nature, which could have not been, and could have been otherwise). All philosophies are thus ‘circular’ when it comes to this self-existent/self-explanatory level.

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  9. I’m quite sure we’ve no evidence for it being a matter of connections rather than (to the exclusion of) causes (does nature wear tags saying “connected only – not caused!” or “caused only, not connected!”?),

    Actually, in a sense, we do. There is only one piece of evidence for causation and that is correlation. However when most people refer to causation they mean something more concrete than correlation so the distinction is significant, but I am not quite sure what that extra concreteness actually entails. Causation is often defined as the combination of correlation, temporal precedence and other cause exclusion. However temporal precedence is just another form of correlation and any exclusion principle is obviously flawed. Nothing in that hints at what causation actually is other than a subset of correlations.

    Incidentally connection and causation I would argue is essentially the same thing – correlation is less than connection, it is a purely circumstantial observation.

    b) dropping ‘all’ absolutes must be done absolutely – even the absolute of ‘absolutely no absolutes’… ;) I’m not sure it can be done.

    Ha! – I think that comes under the “hoisted by my own petard” category. Quite right, but dropping far more sense of absolutes than most people do is still quite liberating (although one could argue liberation isn’t necessarily a source of happiness lol). I also suspect there probably aren’t any “real” absolutes out there because an absolute requires a conceptual framework which I would guess is necessarily imposed rather than intrinsic. Having said that, the human brain operates under a system of enforced absolutes so even contemplating that is a weird space to be in.

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  10. Bugger – my comment went to the wrong place. Here it is:

    At first sight “methodological indifference” seems attractive – but after contemplating it I think it is horrible, for a number of reasons:

    1: We just don’t need such terms. Enough mischief is done by those using “methodological naturalism” without adding more imprecise and meaningless terms for producing an ideologically motivated confusion amongst the great unwashed. (Just think of Plantinga’s linguistic shenanigans).

    2: True “indifference” might actually describe the scientific approach – we don’t give a stuff what apologists or philosophers say in their attempt to describe and confuse. We just get on and do the job. But why apply a name to that?

    3: But worse – “indifference” would soon come to mean that researchers are indifferent to the evidence they acquire – which would not be true but would provide apologists with anhother form of attack.

    4: If indeed naturalism and supernaturaiism are meaningless terms, always defined circularly, its about time we gave them away and starting talking about reality instead of what we want to impose on reality.

    As you say “we do not find accompanying labels or name-tags that tell us “Made by YHWH” or “Purely Natural: No God Required”. ” That is certianly how modern science sees things and it is the apologetic and philosophical mischief makers who pretend otherwise.

    But, of course, mischief makers must make mischief, so I can’t see them giving up such terms.

    And quite frankly. I find descriptions of researchers as “naturalist’ very offensive (like “communist” the user is very often imposing their own prejudices on another) – unless of course the researcher is researching the natural world – plants and animals – or belongs to a naturalist club where people socialise in the nude.

    As for “going beyond the evidence” – surely scientists do that all the time. It’s not a matter of not “admitting” it – its normal science. After all, evidence by itself is of no use. We make use of it when it is generalised into theories.

    But there is still an iumportant dialectical relationshup between knowledge and reality or evidence). We validate out ideas against the real world and adjust them accordingly. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

    That is the scientific way – and I suggest it is far more honest than the theistic way which relies simply on reinterpetation of scientific knowledge to fit into preconceived idas.

    Regarding that 4% figure – humanity has attempted to (roughly) caluclate the total mass/energy in the universe. The results is much larger than what we get just by counting up what we can see or otherwise know exists as normal matter/energy. There is a lot of mass and energy which we just can’t describe as known” (as you suggest) and so we use placeholders like “dark matter” and “dark energy” – then set out to investigate these. Of course it’s warranted to talk about percentages. And scientific knowledge is never complete – we always are aware that we are largley ignorant. We are not the ones who talk about Truth with a capital T.
    Reply · Like · Unfollow Post · 23 hours ago

    Dale Campbell · Subscribed · Associate Pastor at Northcote Baptist Church
    Hi Ken, (been a while)
    I’ve got three of you here, and I’m not as fond of long comment threads as I was a few years back, so very briefly, I think we agree on my main point. As for your generalisation about theistic [mis]use of science, I can’t accept that, because clearly not all theists say the same things on that front, and I’d hope you’d not only single out and bat down the worst kinds of theists.
    Reply · Like · 15 hours ago

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  11. Hi Ken, you copied my reply (to your FB-linked comment above) in your reply :)

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  12. ” b) only theism serves as a real explanation for nature – whereas naturalism halts the explanatory regress at ‘just nature thanks’.”

    Obviously this is the contentious point. “a)” we agree on.

    You say “only theism serves as a real explanation for nature” – this assumes that all of nature (all things known and unknown existing physically) actually needs/requires another level of explaining. Like your god concept doesn’t need explaining – neither may all of nature need explaining.

    “i) that nature is the sort of thing that must be self-explanatory, for it could have been different (not existing at all, or existing differently)”

    I’ve asked you many times how you know that all of nature (all things known and unknown existing physically) could have not existed at all and existed differently and the fact is – you don’t know that at all. It’s just a strange incoherent thing you assertively state in order to posit another level of ‘necessary’ explanation – when really – you don’t know that there necessarily be another level.

    So, really… once you realize and admit that you don’t know that nature (all things known and unknown existing physically) could have not existed at all and existed differently — you might just find yourself in the agnostic camp.

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  13. Dale, I have written a slightly more detailed response to your post on my blog- Going beyond the evidence. I think there are some important things related to the nature of science and scientific knowledge (and the use of terms like “naturalism”) which needed making.

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  14. Pingback: Going beyond the evidence | Secular News Daily

  15. Ryan, just quickly,
    I’m referring to the very reasonable, very accepted, and very intuitive distinction between necessary beings (of which it is held there can ultimately be only one) and contingent beings. If there be a God, then that God must be that single truly necessary being, and necessary beings (pardon the intentional redundancy) must necessarily E[e]xist. It thus makes no sense to say that God (a necessarily necessary Being) could not have existed (or have existed differently). There are no logical problems with stopping the explanatory regress here, for one has reached the ultimate being, who is itself the reason for its own existence and state of being. And something has to eventually be beyond explanation.

    Now to Nature. We have precisely zero evidence to think that nature is that ultimate necessary singular being that must necessarily exist, and some good reason to think that it is not. Not only can we reasonably imagine a reasonable/logical/framework in which it could have not existed or existed differently, but it’s evolving (pardon the pun) nature means that it is top-to-bottom characterised by change, and Necessary beings don’t change in nature.

    In addition to this, as I’ve already said, because one must go beyond ‘x’ being explained to have fully (or at least more fully) explained the cause/reason for the existence/state of ‘x’, therefore explaining nature with nature fails to be an explanation of nature (which we have no reason to think is un-explainable). When someone says that, (they usually use your ‘….but it might be…’ language), it’s just another way of saying that nature is (or ‘might’ be) Ultimate reality.

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  16. “Now to Nature. We have precisely zero evidence to think that nature is that ultimate necessary singular being that must necessarily exist, and some good reason to think that it is not.”

    Let me stop you right there. We. Have. Not. Discovered. All. Of. Nature. Yet. And we might never. What you are calling ‘God’ very well may be physical. It may be natural. It may have always existed. It may be unchangeable in essence/form/whatever word you like to use there. Therefore we have no good reason, none whatsoever to think that the ultimate, necessary being cannot be natural/physical.

    “Not only can we reasonably imagine a reasonable/logical/framework in which it could have not existed or existed differently, but it’s evolving (pardon the pun) nature means that it is top-to-bottom characterised by change, and Necessary beings don’t change in nature.”

    Again, you’re thinking of trees, animals, galaxies, rocks, chemical compounds, etc. These are all examples of clusters of building blocks that are clusters of building blocks which very well may be clusters of building blocks that must necessarily exist and cannot change (but rather group together to form clusters)

    “In addition to this, as I’ve already said, because one must go beyond ‘x’ being explained to have fully (or at least more fully) explained the cause/reason for the existence/state of ‘x’, therefore explaining nature with nature fails to be an explanation of nature”

    That’s cos no scientist is trying to explain the cause/reason for the existence of ‘THE WHOOLLEEE OF NATURE’. At the moment I think they’re still up to our universe on the large scale and elementary particles on the small scale.

    It’s as easy as this. Think of the way you define your god into ‘necessary’ existence. Now think that same way about an undoubtedly undiscovered as of yet (much like Yahweh) elementary particle that necessarily exists and cannot cease existing, change, etc. It’s required everywhere to sustain all manner of clusters of itself (obviously), great and small. See how they both contend (beyond the evidence, easily granted) for ultimate, eternal entity?

    The only difference is – for some reason you think yours loves you (I said all the rest in that other comment on that other post)

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