by Greg Mayer
A tactic pursued vigorously by cdesign proponentsists is to claim that scientists assume that God (and other supernatural beings) doesn’t exist, and that this assumption is just that: an assumption, with no empirical basis. Roger Pennock has responded to this claim, most notably in his book Tower of Babel, noting that it confuses metaphysical naturalism (claims about the existence of entities) with methodological naturalism (forgoing explanatory appeals to the supernatural, because such appeals squelch further inquiry), and that all science must adopt the latter, lest it give up investigation whenever a problem proves recalcitrant. Its converse, “methodological supernaturalism”, is essentially a God of the gaps argument: what we do not understand, we attribute to the supernatural. The fallacy of this argument has been known for millenia, and it has perhaps never been better said than by Hippocrates:
Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end to divine things.
It’s also always seemed to me a rather parlous position for a religious person to adopt, because by identifying the works of God with ignorance, the realm of the divine is on a continual retreat before expanding knowledge. A weaker but related claim made by some accommodationists is that science must be silent about existential claims about God(s), because it cannot contemplate supernatural entities, being bound to consider only natural explanations.
I think Pennock’s response is compelling, but I’ve always thought more could be said. Is it really true that science cannot investigate the supernatural?
If the goal of science is identified, as it sometimes is, as the explanation of phenomena by recourse to general laws (or some such formulation) then it would appear that supernatural events or entities, being unbound by such laws, could not be scientifically investigated. While this characterization of science is not without merit, it ignores a large part of science– much of astronomy, geology, and biology, for starters– which is concerned with history: what has happened. They are, as R.J. O’Hara has put it, “those sciences which have as their object the reconstruction of the past based on the evidence of the present.”
For these sciences, supernatural events are not beyond their ken. For if supernatural entities have interacted with the world in a way to produce observable effects (and if they have not, then to posit their existence is vain), then we can surely know of them by the methods of the historical sciences.
In light of the latest box office smash, an example from Star Trek is enlightening. In the Next Generation and some later series, the crew of the Enterprise periodically encountered a being called Q. Q is immortal and apparently omnipotent: he can do anything. The source and nature of his power is unknown to the Federation or any other galactic civilization. But was he supernatural? Well maybe in some sense he was, but in another sense he wasn’t: he could be observed, studied, and recorded by all the normal biological senses and scientific instruments. His actions were known, recorded, and part of documented history. His activities were never explained by general laws, but that his activities took place was well attested. So although he was not (at least yet) a subject of the sciences of general laws, he was certainly a subject of the historical sciences.
That the supernatural, as exemplified in my example by Q, is not unstudiable, has been proposed in a piece by Russell Blackford and in one of Jerry’s pieces in The New Republic.
But if any supernatural entity in observable contact with the world (i.e. a contact that has consequences) can be studied by the methods of the historical sciences, even if the effects of its contact cannot be subsumed under general laws, is it still supernatural? I would say no. To back me up on this I call on the great Vulcan philosopher, Kiri-kin-tha, and his first law of metaphysics:
Nothing unreal exists.
Or, as I would rephrase his law, anything which exists is natural.