Re: [asa] Origins of Life

From: Randy Isaac <randyisaac@comcast.net>
Date: Sat Jun 06 2009 - 20:46:25 EDT

Greg wrote:
I find it hard to picture why Christians have become apologists for a <philosophical assumption> about <science> that promotes a warfare model in the academy. Granted its not the warfare model that you,re used to discussing. Nevertheless, promoting MN = science is akin to dividing and fragmenting the Academy, using philosophy to do it.

The idea that MN <permits science to be done> is quite absurd unless one is using such a narrow view of <science> as to even contradict the Mission Statements of ASA, which welcome scientific disciplines that study <non-natural> things as well. I know that many people here are in denial of this, but that doesn,t make it any less true. Randy,s definition of <natural> would support the idea that <rape is natural>, <murder is natural> and <deceit is natural>. Of course, many pretty things are <natural> too!

One needn,t accept the philosophical assumption of MN under authoritarian conditions; one would be better to challenge the obvious display of <MNism = scientism> under the disguise of a <nature only> perspective.

Randy replies:

Greg, for many months, if not longer, on this list, you have been choosing to apply alternative definitions to basic terms from what the author intends and then attributing to them beliefs and opinions which they do not in fact hold. More for the benefit of others on this list rather than anything else, I'd like to offer the following clarifications on the meaning of two of your favorite terms, "natural" and "methodological naturalism".

"Natural" has many different meanings, depending on the context and it is easily confused. Here is how I think most scientists use the term and I try to use it in that sense as well:

1. "Natural", in contrast to "supernatural", refers to everything in the physical universe, including the volitional actions of all sentient beings. In this usage, there is no difference between non-natural or supernatural or anything else. Behavior and choices of humans are all part of the natural world.
2. In another context, like university disciplines, "natural sciences" are a way of distinguishing some science disciplines from "social sciences" or "humanities." In this context there is a separation of a study of human behavior and choices from the so-called "natural sciences" which study something else. But this usage must be distinguished from the previous context and I believe you may have conflated them or misunderstood them in many of our notes.
3. In still a third context, the term is used to describe a behavior. You cite "deceit is natural" for one. But in this usage, the meaning is "typical" or "normal" or "to be expected" or "behavior for which one should not be held accountable." This should not be confused with any of the previous contexts. Calling one behavior "natural" in sense #1 does not in any way imply it is "natural" in sense #3.

"methodological naturalism" is the correct description of scientific methodology as Keith has ably pointed out and it has no relationship to scientism. Unfortunately, many people try to define it in ways that are loaded with metaphysical pronouncements. Consider the following set of definitions one might encounter:

"methodological naturalism" means that science is done...:
...as if God doesn't exist
...as if God created the world and then left it alone
...as if God sustains the world in a consistent and comprehensible way
...as if there is nothing else than the natural world

   ...or any other variation of the sort and sometimes with the "as if" replaced by "because" or something similar. All of these are loaded with metaphysical implications. However, MN is not at all a prescriptive, constraining definition of science and, properly understood, does not carry the metaphysical baggage often attached to it. It is better understood as a descriptive understanding of what science can and does do--describe the proximal causes in nature (sense #1 above!). Period. It makes no claim that nothing else exists, just that the scientific methodology is not able to access any reality that may exist beyond that realm.

Randy

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Gregory Arago
  To: randyisaac@comcast.net ; asa@calvin.edu
  Sent: Friday, June 05, 2009 3:56 AM
  Subject: Re: [asa] Origins of Life

        If you,ll forgive this short post to a rather large thread topic, I find it hard to picture why Christians have become apologists for a <philosophical assumption> about <science> that promotes a warfare model in the academy. Granted its not the warfare model that you,re used to discussing. Nevertheless, promoting MN = science is akin to dividing and fragmenting the Academy, using philosophy to do it.

        The idea that MN <permits science to be done> is quite absurd unless one is using such a narrow view of <science> as to even contradict the Mission Statements of ASA, which welcome scientific disciplines that study <non-natural> things as well. I know that many people here are in denial of this, but that doesn,t make it any less true. Randy,s definition of <natural> would support the idea that <rape is natural>, <murder is natural> and <deceit is natural>. Of course, many pretty things are <natural> too!

        One needn,t accept the philosophical assumption of MN under authoritarian conditions; one would be better to challenge the obvious display of <MNism = scientism> under the disguise of a <nature only> perspective.

        Dave Siemens Jr. wrote: <To make methodological naturalism into a metaphysical dogma requires the claim that the only source of knowledge is science, that is, scientism. There is no member of ASA who adopts scientism.>

        On the contrary, Dave, there are surprisingly *many* on the ASA list who adopt <scientism>. But it depends of course on how one defines <scientism>. If one defines <scientism> as follows, then there are many on this list who accept it: <scientism is the ideology that preferences scientific explanations over other knowledge claims, under the guise that ,science knows best, or ,science works,>. But then again, this is an Association that focusses on <science> rather than on <philosophy> or <art>, for example, so it rather makes sense that members of ASA would <privilege> science,s explanatory power above that of philosophy or art. And then if we would have <music> come into play, those who are ideologically <scientistic> at ASA could reduce music to mathematics too!

        Where are the holistic thinkers?

        With respect to <the inherently gradual character of any such transition, no matter how life is defined>, Randy, would you be able to back that up with anything but personal rhetoric? I could name you many, many non-gradualistic examples of <development>, <growth> or <change>. But would you likely dismiss them all as <anomalies> that are <designed> simply to contradict your philosophical assumptions. Or would you rather face them on their own terms, and thus enter the philosophical arena? I don,t find your logic very convincing; i.e. that <life> could <gradually> come (fancy word: <emerge>) from <non-life> without the imput of intelligence or Intelligence.

        And Jonas' <The Phenomenon of Life> is really quite a read on this (though I didn,t finish it and only have parts of it with me here in Russia).

        The idea of a <naturalistic> <origin of life> is a simple heresy in any of the three Branches of Christendom. Why Christian naturalists, even the ExDir of ASA, would be arguing to <prove> a <naturalistic origin> (e.g life from non-life) is difficult to fathom (or maybe he is not promoting this, and I have misunderstood him?). The power of evolutionistic ideology must run stronger than I could have imagined in American <science and religion> discourse in order for this situation to have arisen.

        Gregory

        --- On Fri, 6/5/09, dfsiemensjr <dfsiemensjr@juno.com> wrote:

          From: dfsiemensjr <dfsiemensjr@juno.com>
          Subject: Re: [asa] Origins of Life
          To: randyisaac@comcast.net, asa@calvin.edu
          Received: Friday, June 5, 2009, 7:17 AM

          Randy,
          I heartily second your post. Cameron seems to be making the silly mistake of confusing technique with metaphysics. Methodological naturalism merely specifies that science of any sort requires testing against observation, whether directly or indirectly. Galileo rolling balls was an example of direct testing against repeatable observations. It is no longer that simple in physics, and has been less so in biology and any science that involves persons. But at least the theoretical possibility of empirical testing is necessary. To make methodological naturalism into a metaphysical dogma requires the claim that the only source of knowledge is science, that is, scientism. There is no member of ASA who adopts scientism.

          Methodological naturalism gives confirmation or falsification to scientific claims. It cannot touch metaphysical claims, which cannot be tested empirically except in rare cases. I think of Schopenhauer's pessimism, which claims that the negative experiences mount up inexorably, whereas the demonstrable fact is that negative experiences are forgotten more readily than positive ones. Those few who collect nothing but the negative will probably be classed as mentally ill.

          In general, the only test available for metaphysical claims is consistency. The limitations of consistency are evident in the several mutually contradictory geometries or the infinite variety of modular arithmetics. Although I think Cameron will object, materialism is one of the metaphysical views that can be logically consistent. It has its problems, for no metaphysics completely explains or has place for everything. Eventually one is forced back to the primary assumptions. Those of materialism are not compatible with Cameron's primary assumptions, nor with mine. That, as a Christian, I put unconditional faith in my assumptions, does not prove them right. But I must live by faith. I have to recognize that not all understand this. I recall a professor of mine, a committed Kantian, who insisted that he had no assumptions, but was just seeing things as they are. He could not understand why his students did not see it as he, being right, did.

          Do I see design in the universe? Yes, by faith. Do I see guidance of the development of the earth and its inhabitants? Yes, by faith. Are these matters that involve the methodology of science? No! I have to recognize a similar distinction when I thank God for my food while also recognizing the need for farmers, truckers, millers, bakers and a host of other workers. Theological matters and practical ones are neither contradictory nor mutually cancelling.
          Dave (ASA)

          On Thu, 4 Jun 2009 21:51:20 -0400 "Randy Isaac" <randyisaac@comcast.net> writes:
            Cameron,
              I think you offer an excellent example of confusion between methodological naturalism and metaphysical assumptions. He discussed at some length the impact of various philosophical perspectives at the very beginning. The net of the discussion was that the underlying assumption is the methodological naturalism (though he didn't use the term itself) that permits science to be done. Hazen says very simply that if life arose from non-life in a way that science can detect, then this is how it would have had to happen and how science should approach it. And that if it is sufficiently probable, then it has likely happened more than once in this universe.
              No, I simply do not agree with you about your design comment. As I've stated to you over and over again, science does not and cannot detect design in the abstract from an unknown agent with unknown methodologies. This is not science in a "narrow" sense but in the only way in which it can work. It is not a metaphysical assumption but a good understanding of what science can and cannot do.
              As for the definition of life, I didn't begin to do justice to Hazen's lengthy discussion of the views of scientists, theologians, and philosophers of the definition of life. He cited only some of the 48 that he had studied but he did discuss the pro's and con's of several. I assume there is more in his book. And, yes, that definition should be without reference to metaphysical design as long as one is talking about the science of the origin of life rather than the metaphysical meaning of the origin of life.
              My point was primarily to emphasize the inherently gradual character of any such transition, no matter how life is defined.

              Randy
              ----- Original Message -----
              From: Cameron Wybrow
              To: asa@calvin.edu
              Sent: Thursday, June 04, 2009 5:35 PM
              Subject: Re: [asa] Origins of Life

              I can't help but note the metaphysical assumptions made in the quoted passage.

              "I believe that any attempt to formulate an absolute definition of life, any definition that makes a sharp distinction between life and non-life, must represent a similar false dichotomy. Here's why I say that, I think it's obvious that the first living cell did not just appear fully formed, with all its chemical complexity and genetic machinery intact. Rather, I suspect that life must have arisen through a step-wise sequence of emergent events. I see life's origin as a process of increasing chemical complexity."

              The writer thinks that it is wrong to make "a sharp distinction between life and non-life", and gives, as a reason for this, the statement that "the first living cell did not just appear fully formed", a statement which he terms "obvious".

              Metaphysical assumption #1: That the question whether there is a sharp distinction between life and non-life -- what philosophers would call a metaphysical or ontological question -- can be settled by an appeal to the historical process by which life first arose. The assumption is then that in order to understand the essence of a thing -- in this case, the essence that separates life from non-life -- we must understand its origin or genesis. This is an assumption typical of modern thought, which is radically historical and tends to reduce all questions of essence to questions of origin. That it is not necessary for biology to understand the origin of life in order to correctly characterize life and distinguish it from non-life is shown by works such as Hans Jonas's *The Phenomenon of Life*.

              The writer also suspects that life "must have arisen" through a process of chemical evolution. But the "must have" is only justified if a designed origin of life is ruled out. Otherwise, it is possible that the first cell arose through a process of guided assembly.

              Metaphysical assumption #2: The origin of life can and should be explained without reference to design.

              Needless to say, "science", in the narrow sense of the word that ID's critics employ, cannot justify either of these metaphysical assumptions. And if they are false assumptions, then biologists who work under their influence will be led to false conclusions.

              Note that I am not arguing that chemical origin-of-life scenarios are false. I am merely pointing out that the above passage makes metaphysical assumptions in arguing for such scenarios. These should be honestly admitted, and not passed off as cool, dispassionate, "objective" science. It would be more intellectually scrupulous to say: "*If* we are to explain the origin of life without appeal to any notion of design or planning, and *if* we are to rule out the hypothesis of a freak sudden origin, *then* we must *assume* that it arose through a gradual increase in chemical complexity." Thus, "gradual increase in chemical complexity" would be seen for what it truly is, i.e., not a scientific hypothesis proper -- all proper scientific hypotheses can at least conceivably be disproved -- but an undemonstrated assumption which the origin-of-life scientists have taken as the basis for their research program.

              Cameron.

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Received on Sat Jun 6 20:46:52 2009

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