Re: [asa] Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews? by Yonatan I. Fishman

From: Bill Powers <>
Date: Tue Apr 21 2009 - 11:41:01 EDT

Thanks to Bill Cobern I have had an opportunity to review this paper on
the testing of supernatural claims.

First, it seems to me that his general approach is acceptable, indeed, one
we all employ daily. This commonsense approach to how we deal with
various claims and evaluate them has been formalized in the Bayesian
approach to not only science, but to the evaluation of all sorts of

Second, very little, if anything, is gained by adding the word "science"
to this paper. The empirical difficulties that he mentions have been with
us since time immemorial and are omnipresent inside and outside the
literature. Indeed, they probably reside in every believer.

Third, he only considers probabalistic evidence which concludes the God
does not exist. There are many examples using the very same methods that
come to the opposite conclusion, e.g., the Resurrection.

Fourth, he considers a number of reasons to doubt, including the existence
of evil, the apparent indiscriminate distribution of evil, and increasing
"natural" explanations of phenomena.

He assumes that if there was a perfectly good and all powerful god, the
evil would be distributed more amongst the "evil" or "nonbelievers" than
amongst the "good" and "believers." This is what is known as a theory, and it
is a testable theory. He concludes that there is greater likelihood that
the theory is false than that it is true. Indeed, given some secular
notion of good and evil, I suspect we would all agree with his
conclusions. We didn't need science or even Reverend Bayes to draw this
conclusion, but it sounds so much more "scientific" to say so.

I am pretty much convinced that Bayes theorem can be roughly applied to
lots of our rational thinking, including that of science. However, anyone
who has ever tried to plug in numbers to make this quantitative (as ID
attempts to do sometimes at least) will be sorely disappointed. Indeed,
Fishman never makes this attempt. He simply refers to his favorite
atheists for confirmation.

Does the argument provided above for the existence of God prove that God
does not exist? Of course, not. Fishman wants to argue that the failures
of such empirical tests provide support for His nonexistence. I think he
is correct. We, however, would suggest that he has suggested a bad theory
and we can good reasons to suggest that it is bad theory (e.g., the
crucifixion). Does not, I think, entail that the discussion might not be
engaged, perhaps not with him or any of his like minded friends. As we
all probably know such conversations would likely be a waste of time. But
even this provides evidence for the inadequacy of the method.

I don't care what Fishman says, evidence is not self-interpreting, and
certainly what we judge to be the important evidence and what not is
likewise not unbiased. To mention but one example, I've seen papers
attempting to use a Bayesian analysis of the order and rationality of the
world in which they conclude (it might have been Plantinga) it is more
likely that there is a rational all-powerful creator. But Fishman doesn't
examine this argument. Of course, this argument is also open to doubt.

I need to go, but let me conclude by saying that Fishman can legitimately
apply such lines of thinking to the question of the existence of a
proposed being with certain properties. Science does this all the time.
Electrons were originally thought to be waves, later as particles, and now
as quantum particles. The same can be attempted for God. Just as for
electrons, any natural theology will change in response to new or more
thoroughly considered evidence. Many have concluded there is no god based
upon the evidence, and upon an analysis similar to Fishman's. It is
likely that not all of them were faulty in their thinking. Their problem
was that they tested the wrong god. Their god does not exist. Fishman's
god likely doesn't exist either, just as phlogistin we now think doesn't

The issue of evidence for or against Christianity is a delicate one. On
the one hand, because God is actively involved with His Creation, He must
leave evidence. On the other hand, no amount of evidence will persuade
you. Evidence can support, but not prove, or something less strong.
Science relies on just such kinds of support. Nothing is proved. Nothing
is certain. We rely I think upon the relative probabiliy of alternative
hypotheses and internal coherence.

that's it for now.


  On Mon, 20 Apr 2009, Bill Cobern wrote:

> I would be interested to know if anyone on the list has read the following
> article which is available as a pre-print at the
> webpage. The article will appear sometime this year in the journal Science &
> Education. I have a pdf copy if anyone would like to see the article but does
> not have access to SpringerLink. As I say, I'm curious as to how people on
> the list might respond to Fishman's arguments, especially those more
> philosophically trained than I am!
> grace & peace
> bill
> Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?
> Yonatan I. Fishman
> Abstract Several prominent scientists, philosophers, and scientific
> institutions have
> argued that science cannot test supernatural worldviews on the grounds that
> (1) science
> presupposes a naturalistic worldview (Naturalism) or that (2) claims
> involving supernatural
> phenomena are inherently beyond the scope of scientific investigation. The
> present paper
> argues that these assumptions are questionable and that indeed science can
> test supernatural
> claims. While scientific evidence may ultimately support a naturalistic
> worldview,
> science does not presuppose Naturalism as an a priori commitment, and
> supernatural
> claims are amenable to scientific evaluation. This conclusion challenges the
> rationale
> behind a recent judicial ruling in the United States concerning the teaching
> of ''Intelligent
> Design'' in public schools as an alternative to evolution and the official
> statements of two
> major scientific institutions that exert a substantial influence on science
> educational policies
> in the United States. Given that science does have implications concerning
> the
> probable truth of supernatural worldviews, claims should not be excluded a
> priori from
> science education simply because they might be characterized as supernatural,
> paranormal,
> or religious. Rather, claims should be excluded from science education when
> the evidence
> does not support them, regardless of whether they are designated as 'natural'
> or
> 'supernatural'.
> Dr. Bill Cobern, Director
> <>The George G. Mallinson Institute for Science
> Education
> University Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences and Science
> Education
> College of Arts & Sciences
> Western Michigan University
> 3225 Wood Hall
> Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5444
> Voice: +269.387.5407 FAX: +269.387.4998
> Yes, there really is a
> <>Kalamazoo!

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Received on Tue Apr 21 11:42:04 2009

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