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

From: Schwarzwald <>
Date: Mon May 11 2009 - 04:41:40 EDT

Heya Jon,

Some comments below.

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.

Recently, Dan Dennett had a debate/confrontation with Alvin Plantinga. If
memory serves me, during that Dennett said that even if it were demonstrated
that there was design at work in natural history (say, the origin of life,
or evolution itself), then the best explanation would be aliens or otherwise
- and it was clear to me that Dan regarded such explanations as
naturalistic. Francis Crick comes to mind as well - when he toyed with the
idea of directed panspermia, was he giving up naturalism? Apparently not, or
at least that would be an interesting way to view his argument.

In the end, naturalism really isn't falsifiable. There's always an out -
always a mechanism that probably exists but we just haven't discovered or
observed. In fact, there are even explanations for why we cannot figure
certain things out - have a look at Colin McGinn and the New Mysterians, who
argue that there are certain things humans simply cannot figure out, even
though they certainly have naturalistic explanations (consciousness is the
prime example, but I believe McGinn and others believe other things may also
be in this category.)

Then we have not only multiverse hypotheses, but even simulation hypotheses.
There we have David Chalmers (who has the distinction of rejection
materialism but defending naturalism) among others arguing that if we live
in a designed universe, then it could just be a computer simulation - and
that that is a naturalistic hypothesis.

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.

Sorry, but I couldn't disagree more with this. Because there is no way to
make 'divine action' obvious. Perform a miracle and you have not
demonstrated that naturalism is wrong. There can be naturalistic
explanations for such - alien intelligences (either within or outside our
world), grand deception, etc. Recall that early into Christianity, one
preferred method for 'explaining' the resurrection was not to deny it, but
call it the work of a magician or demons.

The success of "naturalism" in the sciences is, in my opinion, built vastly
more on publicity and spin than actual historical results. Every discovery
of science that can fit with "naturalism" can fit with theism, or
panpsychism, or idealism, or otherwise - because science itself is
dramatically limited, and can't settle metaphysical questions.

Finally, there's no way to make 'divine action' obvious. Certainly not when
dealing with what constitutes the universe. Even if there was a case of
undeniable design (and keep in mind that such cases, I think, are limited to
singular acts of communication rather than design of laws or regularities
etc.) - say, someone writing on the moon 'I exist. Signed, God.' - it no
more makes 'divine action' certain than seeing the same up on an interstate

> 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?

Actually, even atheistic scientists admit that there are going to be certain
questions ("What breathes fire into the equations?") that science is never
going to address. Some atheistic philosophers, as noted, believe science is
going to irrevocably break down (unless we suddenly 'evolve' into new
creatures that we cannot currently imagine).

I think the term "methodological naturalism" is a mistake - it gives more
credit to metaphysical naturalism than it deserves. Perhaps "methodological

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: [] On
> Behalf Of Bill Powers
> Sent: Saturday, May 09, 2009 6:03 PM
> To: Iain Strachan
> Cc: dawson wayne; Ted Davis;; Nucacids
> Subject: Re: [asa] Multiverse and ID
> Ian:
> 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
> oversimplified.
> 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
> evolution.
> 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.
> Bill
> To unsubscribe, send a message to with
> "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.

To unsubscribe, send a message to with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Mon May 11 04:41:55 2009

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Mon May 11 2009 - 04:41:55 EDT