NTSE #15

John W. Burgeson (burgy@compuserve.com)
Tue, 11 Mar 1997 18:36:18 -0500

NTSE #15

Uploaded by permission from Rob Koons by Burgy

NTSE Final Report

Conference on Naturalism, Theism, and the Scientific Enterprise

University of Texas at Austin
February 20-23, 1997

Reflections from an Organizer
Prof. Robert C. Koons
Department of Philosophy
University of Texas at Austin

The NTSE Conference at the University of Texas brought together 120
scientists, scholars and students from North America and Europe to discuss
the relationship between methodological naturalism, theistic hypotheses and
explanations, and the practice of science. The keynote speakers included
Phillip Johnson (UC-Berkeley), Alvin Plantinga (University of Notre Dame),
Michael Ruse (University of Guelph), and Frederick Grinnell (UT
Southwestern Medical Center). Thirty-nine papers were read by specialists
in the philosophy of science, history, geology, biology, physics, computer
science, rhetoric, and the social sciences. The discussions and questions
took place at a very high level and were characterized throughout by
friendliness and mutual respect. Real progress was made, with all sides
enriched by the encounter, and a convergence of views developed on a number
of centrally important issues.

Philosophy does in fact make progress. For example, you would find almost
universal agreement among philosophers that Cartesian foundationalism and
logical positivism are failed projects, and you would find substantial
agreement on how and why they failed. Similarly, the philosophers,
scientists and scholars who met together at the NTSE conference made
substantial progress together on the very important question: Is
methodological naturalism an essential part of science? In the course of
the conference we moved together toward several shared conclusions:

We cannot make a priori pronouncements about what kind of theory or what
kind of explanation can properly be made in the course of scientific
inquiry. In principle, there is nothing to exclude reference to
superhuman, or even extra-cosmic, intelligence.

Good science consists in working within research programs that are
progressive in the following senses: (1) they generate empirically
testable, novel predictions, (2) they generate explanations of a wide range
of phenomena on the basis of a simple, spare system of postulated entities
and relationships, (3) they deal with anomalies and predictive failures
without resorting to ad hoc repairs or epicycles. The inspiration for a
scientific research program can come from anywhere, including religious
conviction, but the evaluation of an existing program must be rigorously

If theistic science or intelligent design theory is to become a
progressive research program, it must do more than poke holes in the
evidence for Darwinism: it must acquire auxiliary hypotheses about the
intentions and preferences of the designer from which we can generate
specific, testable predictions and informative explanations.

We should not expect intelligent design theory to offer much, if anything,
in the way of support to Christian theology, which, in any case, does not
stand in need of any such support. Instead, if we are to pursue theistic
research programs, it must be for the sake of doing science and doing it
well, not for the sake of religion. The cosmic designer investigated in
science may be identified, on philosophical or theological grounds, with
the God of Scriptures, but science itself cannot make this identification.

These four theses became so widely shared at the end of the conference that
I think we could call them the Canonical View of the NTSE conference. This
convergence was especially remarkable in light of the wide diversity of
views with which we began, including non-believers and adherents of all the
major branches of Christendom, and both people sympathetic to and initially
quite hostile toward the published works of Phillip Johnson. I should
mention at least one other point upon which we reached a firm consensus:
that the time has come to conduct the debate on methodological naturalism
and theistic science on the merits (indeed, on the scientific merits) of
the case, and we should no longer tolerate ad hominen attacks on Prof.
Johnson, with attendant name-calling, bullying and intimidation ("he's just
a lawyer... he doesn't understand how science works...", etc.). The
project of launching theistic paradigms in science is now much larger than
a one-man crusade and would go forward even if, per impossibile, it were
possible to silence or discredit Johnson. A growing number of young
scientists, scholars and philosophers of science are staking their careers
on the prospects of an emerging design paradigm, including Dembski at Notre
Dame, Nelson at Chicago, Meyer at Whitworth, and Corey at the Union
Institute, to name a few.

Most participants would also agree that the emerging design paradigm needs
to be given adequate time to mature and develop before a definitive verdict
can be rendered. The core idea of intelligent design must be supplemented
with auxiliary hypotheses and generalizations about the structure of the
design and about at what points the design makes contact with the natural
world. We are at a stage analogous to Copernican astronomy before the
discovery of Kepler's laws (to say nothing of Newton's).

Another important point of agreement, participants agreed that science is a
reliable way of seeking objective truth, and that the greatest threat to
scientific progress today comes from the camp of post-modernists and social
constructionists, who try to reduce scientific inquiry to a merely
political struggle for dominance.

Of course, there were a number of big issues which did not get resolved at
the conference. There was no consensus on the question of whether the
prospects for a successful theistic science are good: some feel there are
strong, although not dispositive, reasons for doubting whether such a
project can be successful, and others feel that the chances of successfully
justify the investment of their time and energies. Fortunately, this is
the sort of disagreement that is commonplace in science and that need lead
only to friendly competition, not internecine warfare. No one supposes
that neo-Darwinian research should be abandoned, or even drastically cut
back. There is a wide range of questions for which Darwinian modes of
explanation have been and in all likelihood will continue to be very
successful in answering. The only issue in dispute is whether there are
some questions, such as biogenesis and phylogeny, for which alternative
strategies should be pursued in parallel.

Another issue on which there is continuing disagreement is that of the
degree of tension between methodological naturalism and historic
Christianity. Although addressed in some length by Michael Ruse and Fred
Grinnell, this question was really outside the scope of our conference,
which concerned the definition of science, not of religion.

Philosophers love to make distinctions, and I am no exception. One
important distinction that emerged for me in the course of our discussions
is that between dogmatic or apriori methodological naturalism (DMN) and
empirically-based or conjectural methodological naturalism (EMN). DMN
involves the claim that the very definition or inherent logic of science
demands that it accord with the rule of making use only of naturalistic
explanations (that is, explanations in terms of events and processes
located within space and time). EMN, in contrast, is the claim that in the
long run it will turn out that all successful scientific research programs
are naturalistic ones, that science will converge upon methodological
naturalism in the long run. EMN is based, not on the definition of science
or on any supposed direct access to the essence of science, but upon the
actual history of science. A defender of EMN has no objection to the
practice of theistic science, nor to calling it "real science". He merely
conjectures that such scientific enterprises will not in the end prove

I hope that, as a result of our conference, the thesis of DMN will be seen,
once and for all, as definitively refuted. It is to my mind significant
that no one defended DMN, not even those, like Michael Ruse, who have
endorsed it in the past. I think we can only conclude that the DMN thesis
is now in full and hasty retreat, and will in the very near future have no
serious defenders. DMN is to the theory of scientific methodology what
young-earth creationism is to geochronology.

If I may, I would like to interject a few words of encouragement and advice
to those who are considering whether to join one of the theistic paradigms
of scientific research (here I am speaking only for myself, and not for the
conference as a whole). I think that the primary reason why theistic
research programs have not been undertaken in the recent past (i.e., the
last 200 years or so) is not from lack of courage or lack of opportunity,
but from lack of imagination. I would encourage scientists to think
theistically, to adopt a theistic heuristic (if you'll pardon the
alliteration). Christians of course have nothing to fear from scientific
progress, but instead of merely contributing to the research programs
launched and developed by our agnostic colleagues, we need to consider the
possibility that as theists we can discover order and regularity, even
natural laws of universal design, that our unbelieving colleagues do not
see because they are not looking for them. We need to realize that theism
is not only not a hindrance to good science, it may be a necessary
condition for certain discoveries being possible at all.

John Lennox, a mathematician from Cardiff at the conference, made a very
paradoxical, but I think prescient, remark. He suggested that, just as it
is possible to be an ontological theist but a methodological naturalist, so
is it possible to be an ontological naturalist and a methodological theist.
John and I agree that much of current biology (in so far as functional and
teleological claims are still current) is in fact methodologically theistic
(if only covertly). As the theistic paradigm develops, there is every
reason to hope that it will be joined by scientists who are personally
agnostic but who recognize good science when they see it. Indeed,
historians of science like Duhem and Whitehead have argued that the
development of modern physical theory in the 14th through 18th centuries
would have been impossible without the Christ-engendered conviction that
the physical universe might prove to be intelligible to us.

A number of design theorists have made an analogy to the search for
extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), and I think the analogy is an apt
one. We are currently spending millions of dollars searching for evidence
of extraterrestrial intelligence in the absence of any data that such
exists. In contrast, we already have considerable evidence of the existence
of extra-cosmic intelligence (for example, in the anthropic coincidences),
so surely a scientific search for additional evidence is warranted.

Let me reiterate that the research program does not consist in simply
finding more and more examples of things that Darwinism cannot explain. To
constitute an alternative paradigm, it must demonstrate that it can produce
novel predictions and informative explanations, and that it can out-perform
naturalism in doing so, at least within certain significant sub-domains. I
can think of one example where this has already happened. A design theorist
can confidently predict that we will find more and more anthropic
coincidences, with higher and higher degrees of fine-tuning required, since
the design hypothesis can easily incorporate the auxiliary hypothesis that
the designer created a world in which his capacity for intelligent
fine-tuning would be abundantly exercised. This is a prediction that the
main competitor to theism, the many-worlds hypothesis, cannot readily
duplicate. The many-worlds theorist can always explain, retrospectively,
any particular anthropic coincidence (since otherwise we wouldn't be here,
i.e., in this world), but he has no reason to expect that there exist any
as-yet undiscovered coincidences. Hence, the vast number of new anthropic
coincidences discovered in recent years strongly confirms the theistic
paradigm and disconfirms its naturalistic competitor.

In addition to anthropic coincidences, design theorists should look for two
other kinds of order or regularity that Darwinists are not looking for:
biological functionality that cannot be explained by the need for
reproductive fitness, and functional or developmental homologies that
cannot easily be explained by common descent. For instance, theistic
ecologists should look for evidence of ecological functions, that is,
functions that benefit the ecosystem as a whole without contributing to the
reproductive fitness of the organism itself (or its near kin). Theistic
cognitive scientists should look for evidence of cognitive functionality
(epistemic reliability, aesthetic sensibility) that far exceeds the needs
of reproductively adaptive behavior. Comparative biologists and
paleontologists should look for repeated patterns of adaptation and
functionality that cannot readily be explained in terms of genetic
inheritance alone. To reiterate: the task is not to find phenomena which
naturalism <b>cannot</b> possible explain (we will never find such), but to
find phenomena for which an enriched theistic paradigm does, and the
naturalist ones in fact do not, provide satisfying explanations.

We cannot anticipate in advance exactly what sort of design patterns we may
find. God is of course inscrutable: merely asking, how would I do it if I
were God is of course notoriously unreliable. However, as a heuristic for
generating hypotheses, this is exactly right: how might I do it if I were
God? Once we have specific hypotheses, we can look to observation or
experiment to confirm or refute them. Scientists in the sixteenth century
faced exactly the same problem in investigating matter. The laws of matter
were just as inscrutable then as the principles of universal design are
now. Descartes thought (wrongly) that he could deduce logically how matter
had to behave. He proved dead wrong, but the hypothesis he produced was
perfectly legitimate and quite testable.

We must abandon the constraint that science should be limited to the search
for mechanisms. This is simply untrue of many branches of science, such as
cosmology or theoretical physics. The idea that science should look only
for mechanistic explanations is rooted in Bacon's infamous dictum,
"Knowledge is power". Science is the rational pursuit of truth by
empirical means. Bacon's motto must be replaced by the nobler sentiment of
Aristotle, in which science, like all philosophy, begins with wonder and
ends in contemplation.

Created 2/27/97.