Re: [asa] Anti-Creationist Psychobabble On the Web - non-natural agents?

From: Gregory Arago <>
Date: Sat Apr 04 2009 - 05:25:49 EDT

"There simply is no way to incorporate the actions of non-natural agents into a scientific research program." - Keith Miller
The same question applies that was recently asked to George Murphy.
Can you please give an example of non-natural agents? Can such agents *not* be supernatural or is that a contradiction in terms? I.e. in your view, does non-natural = supernatural? In your text below, that surely seems to be the case (e.g. the term 'supernatural' is used 6 times, once before and 5 times after your use of 'non-natural').
Is there a scientific definition of 'non-natural agents' or is that impossible due to the limitations of natural science itself?
Keith seems to have a rather narrow and insignificant meaning of 'non-natural agents,' unless he would clarify what he means. (And I'm not talking about ID.) Perhaps non-natural agents are best discussed in a non-natural sciences (i.e. non-natural scientific language)?

-- On Sat, 4/4/09, Keith Miller <> wrote:

From: Keith Miller <>
Subject: Re: [asa] Anti-Creationist Psychobabble On the Web
To: "AmericanScientificAffiliation Affiliation" <>
Received: Saturday, April 4, 2009, 3:40 AM

The nature of science and the meaning and significance of methodological naturalism is a topic of significant importance for me.  It figures very prominently in my effort at public science literacy, and defusing the public "creation/evolution" debate.

I have published several essays that address this issue, the most recent is my chapter "The misguided attack on methodological naturalism" in the edited volume "For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design" published by the University of California Press. 

I include an excerpt from that essay below.

The absence of references to supernatural cause in scientific description is not just an agreed philosophical limitation of science, but it is a consequence of the practical inability of science to detect divine action.  It is interesting that even what little scientific research is conducted by ID advocates is conducted using MN.  There simply is no way to incorporate the actions of non-natural agents into a scientific research program.  What ID proponents typically do is to overlay philosophical and religious understandings on scientific conclusions.  They invest particular scientific observations with theological meaning.  It is entirely appropriate for anyone to apply his or her religious and philosophical perspectives to interpreting science.  However, that does not make such philosophical perspectives themselves scientific.
From the perspective of scientific inquiry, a supernatural agent is effectively a black box, and appeals to supernatural action are equivalent to appeals to ignorance.  A supernatural agent is unconstrained by natural “laws” or the properties and capabilities of natural entities and forces -- it can act in any way, and accomplish any conceivable end.  As a result, appeals to such agents cannot provide any insight into understanding the mechanisms by which a particular observed or historical event occurred.  Belief in the creative action of a supernatural agent does not answer the questions of how something happens.   “A miracle occurs here” is no more an answer to the question of “How?” than is “We don’t know.” 
This same point can be made beginning from a theological perspective.  As understood in Christian theology, divine action includes the doctrine of providence,  which concerns God’s sustaining and upholding of the natural world, and divine cooperation with and governance of nature.[1]  Divine action in this sense does not imply any break in the continuity of cause-and-effect natural processes.  An internally complete scientific description would be completely consistent with this theological view.   Scientific and theological understandings are seen as complementary – science would simply be providing a description of natural phenomena as they are upheld by divine providence.
However, what of divine miracle?  The traditional Christian theological understanding of miracle is that of a sign that draws attention to or confirms some aspect of the revelation of God's character or will – it carries theological meaning.  A miracle in this sense does not require that the sign break natural law or interrupt chains of cause-and-effect.  Only the subset of miraculous actions that involve divine intervention and the breaking of natural chains of cause-and-effect are potentially in conflict with a scientific explanation. 
Can “law-breaking” miraculous events in natural history be detected or falsified scientifically?  Although not falsifiable, a specific claim of divine action of this kind could be brought into question if a series of natural cause-and-effect processes could be shown to plausibly account for the miracle.  However,  such a conclusion says nothing about God's action in and through those processes.  If, on the other hand, no such plausible series of natural events is currently known to account for the miracle, then scientists will continue to search for such a natural explanation.  A true break in the continuity of natural processes is indistinguishable from current ignorance. 
Scientific investigation cannot conclude that a particular event in the history of life, or a particular feature of the natural world, must be the consequence of a supernatural agent.  We are of course free to make those claims from a theological perspective. But those claims must be evaluated on their theological and philosophical merits.  ...

[1] For a concise discussion of providence and miracle see J. Polkinghorne, 1989, Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 114p.

I would encourage those interested to get the book and read the essay in its entirety.

All the best,

Keith __________________________________________________________________ Instant Messaging, free SMS, sharing photos and more... Try the new Yahoo! Canada Messenger at

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Received on Sat, 4 Apr 2009 02:25:49 -0700 (PDT)

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