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

From: wjp <>
Date: Tue Apr 21 2009 - 21:25:12 EDT


What you say can be treated as a reply to the empirical hypothesis:
Prayers to a good, all-powerful god for the healing of sickness
will increase the likelihood of healing.

You suggest that this would not be an empirical law, and you provide
some reasons why not.

The question is whether you can think of any empirical laws that might
apply to God. I take it that you do not think there would be such laws.
I suppose Fishman would ask, "why not?"
Or he would say, in true positivist fashion, "Since you can provide no
evidence for the existence of God, I conclude that scientifically (at
least), He does not exist."

Essentially, Fishman's argument might be that of Antony Flew's Parable
of the Invisible Gardner, evidence for which is the same as had there
been no gardener whatsoever.

I think speaking from the perspective of an empirical science one would
be hard put to dispute this logic. If in science, we can provide no
evidence whatsoever for the existence of an entity, we would conclude
that it does not exist. It wouldn't help if we were to argue that the
nature of this entity is such that it cannot be detected. For then we
would be free to posit anything whatsoever.

Consider quarks. I hope George will chime in here for I know next to
nothing of them. I don't think we knew anything of them when I was in
graduate school and even if we did it would probably be not studied in
general graduate level classes. Anyway, as I understand it quarks may
be undetectable in principle, yet many people believe they exist. Why?
I'm not certain, but I suppose because of their theoretical explanatory
power. Perhaps other can explain it. It would be interesting to compare
quarks to God.

I frankly think that there is evidential support for the existence of God.
Moreover, it provides significant explanatory power and coherence.
That doesn't mean, however, that I believe such evidence is sufficient
for faith. Indeed, I think it sorely lacking with regard to faith since
they are different categories.

Briefly, I still don't think Fishman is doing anything illegitimate.
Were one to engage Fishman on the subject I think one might bring up a
whole host of evidences that he conveniently never mentions, including
the existence of a universe, the existence of minds, the existence of life,
the existence of "free will."

But you see what happens when I do this: it is starting to sound like ID.
Perhaps it doesn't have to if one is willing to concede that what you are
doing is not something so "high" as science. Saying this, however, probably
entails a certain view of the situation and the nature of God, and perhaps of
man. It means that what is being done is not saying that alternative
views and characterizations aren't possible, rather there is good empirical
support for the existence of our God, and even in Christ. It is the kind
of evidence which doesn't so much persuade the atheist, but to provide support
for the believer, and that can't be all bad.

To take one example, consider evolution. Plantinga offers a well-known argument
against evolution (at least unguided evolution) and the existence of minds that
can obtain knowledge (I think he says know truth, but I think we can speak more
broadly). The argument is just like Fishman's, guided by a Bayesian analysis.
The problem is, according to this argument, if evolution is true and we are beliefs
are not trustworthy, then neither is our belief in evolution.

Will this argument persuade a believer in random, unguided evolution? I don't think
so. There will always be enough room for anyone to wiggle out of the argument,
perhaps by a reassessment of the probabilities (a la the Drake equation).
So what is the point? It points to problems with the theory (I don't think
this is the only one). But all theories have anomalies. With a theory like
evolution which is committed to so little there will always be plenty of leg
room. What kills a theory is not, in my view, anomalies. It's alternative
theories. I doubt whether there is any other possible scientific theory for the
origin of life than some form of evolution.

The real question is how we come to settle on any theory. Is it because we
simply run out of new empirical data? Or new paradigmatic unambiguous experiments?
Well, I'm rambling. So many questions and so few answers.


On Tue, 21 Apr 2009 18:50:23 -0400, "Alexanian, Moorad" <> wrote:
> Bill,
> Experimental science is quite successful in the hard sciences. I am not
> sure if you can reduce answer to prayers to be an experimental science. If
> am not sure that prayers addressed to God can be so systematized. I do not
> think fancy Bayesian analysis would be useless here. Note that here we are
> dealing with free will on the part of all concerned and so the system is
> not that simple.
> Moorad
> ________________________________________
> From: Bill Powers []
> Sent: Tuesday, April 21, 2009 5:41 PM
> To: Alexanian, Moorad
> Cc: Bill Cobern;
> Subject: RE: [asa] Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews? by Yonatan I.
> Fishman
> Moorad:
> Fishman makes no reference to miracles per se. He is only interested in
> verifiable evidence. So for example he cites work on "intercessory
> prayer." I've heard results on both sides of this aisle, but he cites
> only a study which concluded that the there was no evidence of a
> verifiable effect.
> His approach is simple and should be familiar to us. You make an
> hypothesis and then determine whether the "evidence" supports the
> hypothesis or not. The example I gave in a previous post could be
> viewed as the confirmation or disconfirmation of a law-like covering
> law.
> bill
> On Tue, 21 Apr 2009, Alexanian, Moorad wrote:
>> I do not know how one can answer the question, Can Science Test
> Supernatural Worldviews? if we do not first define what science is.
>> In my view, the answer is defiantly no. Science deals with the physical
> and physical devices can detect neither the nonphysical nor the
> supernatural. Physical devices can at most detect the physical aspect,
> say, of a miracle. The most one can have, therefore, as objective evidence
> of a supernatural event is to actually film it, provided that it activates
> the chemistry of the film, and use that as evidence. Of course, this may
> not even be sufficient, witness magicians.
>> Moorad
>> -----Original Message-----
>> From: [] On
> Behalf Of Bill Powers
>> Sent: Tuesday, April 21, 2009 11:41 AM
>> To: Bill Cobern
>> Cc:
>> Subject: Re: [asa] Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews? by Yonatan
> I. Fishman
>> 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
>> claims.
>> 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
>> exist.
>> 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.
>> bill
>> 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 21:25:47 2009

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