[asa] MN and Falsifiability (was: Multiverse and ID)

From: Jon Tandy <tandyland@earthlink.net>
Date: Sun May 10 2009 - 21:17:27 EDT

I think Bill is right in some ways about this and wrong in others. Consider
the case of the true Darwinian evolution model - gradual, stepwise
evolution. Even Darwin recognized there were problems with this, but they
became more apparent in the next century. Lack of transitional fossils was
countered with the fact that certain environments and certain biological
entities don't fossilize as well; or that fossil evidence can be permanently
destroyed; and with what gaps could be filled in some level of detail.
Enter Gould (and I've heard, others before him with similar suggestions) and
"punctuated equilibrium". Species are relatively stable, but in certain
circumstances evolution can appear to make large jumps in relatively short
periods of time. Thus PE gives another explanation for why there are so
many gaps in the fossil record - that's just the way evolution works.
Another success for the explanatory power of MN.

It does seem that for those committed to common descent and methodological
(and/or metaphysical) naturalism, the overall theory of evolution is
sacrosanct, while the details (or lack thereof) are debatable.

I do think Bill is overstating the case, in saying that MN is unfalsifiable.
I also think he is confusing two things, by bringing in evolution
specifically as well as MN more generally. Evolution as a theory (or set of
theories) could be falsified in a number of ways that have been given on
this list. If species appeared in random sequence in the fossil record; if
genetic evidence provided negative confirmation of relatedness that was
previously held based on other evidence; if no mutations could ever be found
to have positive effects, and never observed over large numbers of
experiments; then at least the current naturalistic theories would have to
be abandoned.

But taking Bill's more general point related to the theory of methodological
naturalism, he said that "No matter what the evidence, I think the position
would still be held" and "some story would be developed to explain it". In
other words, those who are committed to a "fully" naturalistic explanation
(with or without a Theistic primary cause) would find some sort of story to
explain the universe in naturalistic terms. The multiverse is just a good
case in point -- a story that is presumably unfalsifiable, in order to
justify a naturalistic origin for a very improbable universe.

However, I want to go a different direction with this. Why did we come to
think that methodological naturalism had any merit in the first place? It's
because as we investigated the universe, we found more and more things that
operated by natural (or at least apparently natural) and regular laws and
cause/effect relationships. It was the success of science, not a prior
commitment to naturalism, that led to naturalism's dominance. The "prior
commitment" before naturalism was to divine action of some kind or another.
So what would have happened if scientific investigation had instead revealed
more and more ways in which divine action was obvious? Methodological
naturalism might never have gained ground. Thus, in this sense I think Bill
is wrong -- MN could potentially have been falsifiable, if the evidence to
rule out natural cause and effect had been clearly present. However, that
hasn't been the case.

So the main point in dispute, then, is whether MN can explain 100% of
natural effects, or whether it will turn out to only be able to explain only
99% or 90%, etc. Due to its success so far, atheistic scientists and TEs
alike seem to hold out that it can; ID is counting on it not being able to
go 100%. So let's ask a question: let's assume MN can account for 90% of
effects in the natural world. Is it possible to ever falsify it in the
remaining 10%, and if so, how? Could it be falsified in the same way as I
described above, by finding areas of obvious divine action? If MN can't be
falsified, is it scientific?

Or, are we asking the wrong question? If MN is not a "scientific theory"
but rather an underlying philosophy about science, should we not even be
talking about falsifying it? If not, why not? If a philosophy could
possibly be faulty, should we not be examining the underlying philosophical
assumptions of science to make sure they are sound, if not "scientific"
themselves? And if MN as a philosophy were incorrect, how could it be
replaced, if not through falsification or some other means of disproof?

Jon Tandy

-----Original Message-----
From: asa-owner@lists.calvin.edu [mailto:asa-owner@lists.calvin.edu] On
Behalf Of Bill Powers
Sent: Saturday, May 09, 2009 6:03 PM
To: Iain Strachan
Cc: dawson wayne; Ted Davis; asa@lists.calvin.edu; Nucacids
Subject: Re: [asa] Multiverse and ID


What mean by evolution I think is more general. I mean something like that
life arouse and speciated by the workings of chance and law.

It seems to me that under MN this is an unfalsifiable theory. Indeed, it
must be true. No matter what the evidence, I think the position would still
be held.

What we find is evidence that supports that evolution has occurred. E.g.,
perhaps genetic signatures that can be traced from species to species, and
perhaps, given some dateline of species arrival, a history of genetic
modification, etc.

My point, however, is that even if we didn't find this evidence, but found
something else, it too would either support evolution or some story would be
developed to explain it.

Suppose, for example, that we found no simple celled fossils in a strata
that predates the arrival of more complex forms. We would simply conclude
that for some reason these species left no fossil record.

My familiarity with the modern developments of evolutionary theory is almost
nil (except what I hear here and elsewhere). So this picture must be

Can someone offer the evidence or lack thereof that would cause serious
doubts in a naturalistic evolutionary story. The only one that I am fully
familiar with is ID, which claims the probabalistic resources are
inadequate. That, however, is a very broad and difficult case to make.

It occurs to me, however, that what I am saying is obvious, just as obvious
that the fall of a ball, or lightning must according the MN have
naturalistic explanations. This means that in order for what I say to make
any sense, I would have to distinguish different naturalistic models of

I often hear, here and elsewhere, that evolution is a fact attested now by
much evidence. That is not at all clear to me, having heard some of the
evidence. What I think is meant to be said is that there is a mass of
evidence that can be interpreted to support that evolution has taken place.
What this is taken to mean is that something like "common descent"
is a phenomena that begs for explaining. It is not clear to me that the
argument is not circular.

Take, e.g., similarities in the genetic coding across many species, or the
common process of protein replication. This suggests, given the large
number of life forms, some relationship between them. It also suggests to
me that if life arose by "accident," it must be very improbable indeed, even
on our planet. For otherwise, it seems that there would be many competing
forms. But I don't know how common descent is inferred without presuming
that life variations arose by naturalistic processes.

If we are to presume by agreement that any explanation must be naturalistic,
then the only question appears to be whether there were many trees or just
one or two, the latter representing common descent. If this is all common
descent asserts, it seems rather meagre and one wonders why given
naturalistic presumptions why anyone would have difficulty with it.

The issue appears to be a matter of the naturalistic probability of life
arising. Common descent appears to affirm that probability is low, perhaps
extraordinarily low given the vast amount of time available.
Whereas if there are many paths, i.e., many beginnings the probability of
life developing in our environment might be considerably larger. Of course
proponents of many paths might argue that all but one or two died out and
that's the reason we don't see multiple strains today.

Well, I'm rambling.


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Received on Sun May 10 21:18:48 2009

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