Note to Science: Philosophy is Your Friend

Philosopher Robert Delfino offers science an alternative approach to evaluating evidence.

By | Posted April 23, 2008
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Every 72 seconds, someone develops Alzheimer’s disease. And if you are a baby-boomer, there is a one in eight chance that someday this person will be you.

British scientists recently suggested that controlling cholesterol levels in the brain may be critical to hampering the development of Alzheimer’s. They gained this insight by considering not just the role of viruses and bacteria, but also the once-heretical concept of prions. These infectious agents, which also underlie mad cow disease, are made solely of misfolded proteins. Even more surprisingly, they reproduce without the nucleic acid genome found in viruses and bacteria. In the case of prions, new evidence led scientists to reconsider their understanding of what constitutes an infection.

As the scope of science continues to expand, it sometimes enters the territories of other disciplines. This mingling can blur the once black-and-white distinction between the natural and that which presently defies scientific categorization. It also can hinder science’s dialogue with these fields and even the advance of scientific knowledge itself.

With its emphasis on evidence and focus on truth, philosophy provides several paths for science to follow. Robert Delfino proposes that the evidence — not a preconceived understanding of nature — should guide science’s attempt to understand and categorize experimental results.

“Our ideas must conform to the world,” says Delfino, a professor of philosophy at St. John’s University’s Staten Island campus in New York City. “We cannot say that the world must conform to our ideas.”

Many scientists maintain that super- or non-natural explanations are not allowed in science. “An explanation of the mind, like that of the brain, must ultimately be an explanation in terms of the way that neurons function,” says physicist Sir John Maddox, who served as editor of Nature for 23 years. “After all, there is nothing else on which to rest an explanation.” Scientists like Maddox, for example, are unwilling to consider as a scientific possibility that the human mind is non-physical.

This understanding of what is “natural” has provided a lens for interpreting experimental results. Known as methodological naturalism, it plays a dominant role in modern science.

“It’s doing what science does,” says Vic Stenger, a Colorado physicist and author of the New York Times bestseller “God: The Failed Hypothesis.”

Unfortunately, different perspectives of what is or is not “natural” can muddle rather than clarify this term’s implications.

The National Academy of Sciences states that science focuses on the natural world, but various researchers and philosophers of science define “natural” in distinctly different ways. Without an established understanding, it is not clear by the Academy’s definition of science what territory is or is not fair game for science.

Stenger notes this inconsistency: “Science only deals with the natural by definition. But by whose definition?”

Motivated by a philosopher’s commitment to evidence and search for the truth, Delfino is attempting to replace methodological naturalism with a different guiding principle that he says will make science more rational and objective.

He believes scientists like Nature’s Maddox limit science unnecessarily. According to Delfino, a scientist assuming that everything can be explained through natural causes is like a reviewer “coming to a book with an ax to grind.” Just as evidence encouraged scientists to consider prions as a category distinct from viruses and bacteria, Delfino notes that the right evidence could reveal that the mind belongs in a category separate from matter and energy.

Future investigation will determine the fate of Maddox’s position, and very well may confirm his view that the mind can be explained in established terms of matter and energy. On the other hand, new information might make us realize that our metaphysical categories are too limited.

The inability of scientists to entertain other explanations, including non-natural ones, can impede scientific progress, says Delfino. To maintain this neutral approach, he believes science must abandon methodological naturalism.

Delfino is challenging how science interprets the gathered data, not the general process of obtaining this information. Instead of being constricted by methodological naturalism, he says scientists should classify their data differently given sufficient evidence. Like Socrates who believed in following the fact track wherever it leads, Delfino says, “We must also be open to changing the way we conceive of things based on new evidence.” He says the transition from Newton’s physics to Einstein’s relativity demonstrates that scientific theories are always tentative and subject to future revision.

Andrew Ellington, a biochemist at the University of Texas at Austin, agrees with this approach. “I have no problem challenging Darwin any day of the week if it is where the evidence leads,” he says.

Some advocates for supernatural positions that imply a higher power, such as Young Earth Creationists, may push a religious agenda and be justifiably tagged as unscientific. But Delfino is not saying the supernatural is something scientists can measure directly like an electric current. Nor is Delfino inserting supernatural explanations or personal beliefs into scientific gaps only to be squeezed out by future scientific developments. He does not even insist that there is a God.

Instead, Delfino challenges researchers to not vote non-natural explanations off the island of science without sufficient reason. Science cannot prematurely rule out that there could be some unorthodox explanation why, for example, the universe seems fine-tuned for life.

Massimo Pigliucci, a professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, and an atheist, concedes this point: “Should we conclusively determine that the probability of existence of our universe is infinitesimally small, and should we fail to explain why physical constants have assumed the quantities that we observe, the possibility of a designed universe would have to be seriously considered.”

Other philosophers have recognized pitfalls in methodological naturalism. But not all believe that limitations entail rejection.

Ten years ago, Alvin Plantinga wrote an article entitled “Methodological Naturalism? that helped jump-start this discussion. He sees Delfino’s arguments as a mixed bag. Plantinga, a philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame, agrees with Delfino that methodological naturalism kicks purpose in nature to the curb and plucks the eyes that could see divine design. But he does not believe that methodological naturalism violates science’s guiding principles.

Plantinga is confident that scientists working under the guidelines of methodological naturalism can still come up with the truth. “It doesn’t mean science is not useful, even if it is constrained,” Plantinga contends. “It helps to know what it looks like from a certain perspective.”

For example, Plantinga proposes that religious beliefs provide part of the background information with which the general public evaluates scientific statements. Countering those who would label this approach as biased, Plantinga responds that “If I want to find out something, the smart thing to do would employ all of what I know, not part of what I know.”

Delfino says that Plantinga’s approach is mistaken because it mixes religion and science. It is acceptable for theologians to incorporate the findings of science into theology, he says. But scientists cannot use revelation in science. “To add Christian revelation into science,” says Delfino, “would turn science into a type of religious theology.”

Instead, he recommends the position of initial neutrality as the only rationally defensible view. Delfino says that the evidence — not a prior commitment to naturalism or Christianity — should lead scientists to their conclusions and, if necessary, the positing of new metaphysical categories. Last year, he presented a paper, “Replacing Methodological Naturalism,” which covers these arguments in much greater detail.

Delfino is not the only one to recognize the advantages that philosophy can offer to science. In a personal conversation with Delfino during a visit to St. John’s, University of Cambridge evolutionary paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris agreed that the lack of philosophical training among scientists is a hindrance to genuine dialogue about topics like evolution and God.

Delfino said that Conway Morris also told him that a separation between philosophers and scientists exists in the United Kingdom just as it does in the United States.

Colorado physicist Stenger recognizes that “not all scientists have thought about the problem” of this rift.

Looking forward, Delfino believes that philosophy — particularly logic, metaphysics, and the philosophy of science — can play a role in the growth of the scientific endeavor. “I do think that there will come a time when scientists will have to study philosophy more and come to appreciate the philosophical foundation of the whole enterprise,” he says. This would allow for a healthier dialogue between science and religion. As Delfino says, “Some of the battles about science and religion are actually disagreements about philosophical positions.”

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  1. Well, since I am quoted out of context in the article, I feel the need to comment.

    First, when I said that strong evidence of fine tuning of the universe (which we do not have) would force the consideration of an intelligent designer this is not the same as saying that supernatural explanations are part of science. Reason is broader than science, and God is still out of the latter (see next paragraph).

    Second, Delfino seems to take a rather naive position (at least as reported in the article). Science does not consider the supernatural for the simple reason that a supernatural explanation is an oxymoron: if God can do whatever he wants for whatever reason he wants, then there is no way to test hypotheses about what he does and why. Since science is all about empirically testable hypotheses, the supernatural is out by definition.

    Massimo Pigliucci, April 23, 2008 at 10:46 am
  2. Well, since my position was said to seem naive, I feel the need to reply.

    Pigliucci seems to hold that the word supernatural refers exclusively to God. He adds that “if God can do whatever he wants for whatever reason he wants, then there is no way to test hypotheses about what he does and why.” From this he concludes that the supernatural, since it is not testable, must be excluded from science by definition.

    But why should the scientific community, or anyone for that matter, adopt this understanding of the word supernatural? Must we define the supernatural to refer exclusively to God? And even if we must, why should we adopt the understanding of God that Pigliucci has offered? The understanding he discusses is very close to a voluntarist conception of God espoused by theologians such as William of Ockham. However, this is not even a view of God shared by all Christian theologians, let alone other religions.

    Since I do not understand the supernatural in the way that Pigliucci understands it above, his argument about the supernatural being ruled out of science by definition does not apply to me. But perhaps Pigliucci thinks that all non-natural explanations (even if they do not involve God) are by definition not testable. If so, I think it begs the question to define the non-natural in this way. (I should note that I use the word supernatural interchangeably with the word non-natural.)

    Rather than impose on science some pre-conceived understanding of natural or non-natural, I advocate a different view, which I call methodological neutralism. The principle of methodological neutralism states that scientists should simply search for causes without setting any a priori conditions on what ontological status those causes must have. Once evidence is gathered scientists can lean in favor of a cause being natural or supernatural as the evidence indicates. However, even this is only tentative as new discoveries might cause scientists to change their view about a particular cause’s ontological status.

    Greg Solits gave several examples to help clarify my view, including this one:

    Many scientists maintain that super- or non-natural explanations are not allowed in science. “An explanation of the mind, like that of the brain, must ultimately be an explanation in terms of the way that neurons function,” says physicist Sir John Maddox, who served as editor of Nature for 23 years. “After all, there is nothing else on which to rest an explanation.” Scientists like Maddox, for example, are unwilling to consider as a scientific possibility that the human mind is non-physical…. [Delfino] believes scientists like Nature’s Maddox limit science unnecessarily. According to Delfino, a scientist assuming that everything can be explained through natural causes is like a reviewer “coming to a book with an ax to grind.” Just as evidence encouraged scientists to consider prions as a category distinct from viruses and bacteria, Delfino notes that the right evidence could reveal that the mind belongs in a category separate from matter and energy.

    Soltis also gave a quick summary of my position: “Delfino says that the evidence — not a prior commitment to naturalism or Christianity — should lead scientists to their conclusions and, if necessary, the positing of new metaphysical categories.” In addition, he alerted the reader, and gave a clickable link, to my article “Replacing Methodological Naturalism,” published in the Global Spiral, where I discuss these issues in greater detail.

    Let me give that link here as well: http://www.metanexus.net/Magazine/tabid/68/id/10028/Default.aspx

    Robert Delfino, April 26, 2008 at 5:35 pm
  3. Robert Delfino is right in underlining that Massimo Pigliucci’s notion of God is that of extreme voluntarism, which – I would add – exceeds even Newton’s God of the Scholium Generale.
    Nevertheless, Pigliucci correctly says that “supernatural explanation is an oxymoron”; however, only insofar as ‘explanation’ means the hypothetico-deductive empirical method, which is as bright as a candle (Locke’s simile) – it allows us to see as far as it shines.

    Paul Richard Blum, May 1, 2008 at 12:09 am
  4. I don’t know if Delfino’s views are being oversimplified here, but there is a difference (an enormous difference) between allowing the logical possibility of scientific study of supernatural hypotheses (with which I agree), and actually thinking it would be worth an investment of any money and manpower to do so (with which I don’t agree).

    Methodological naturalism is not some arbitrary dogma: it is an attitude that follows from a meta-hypothesis (metaphysical naturalism) that has been consistently confirmed so many times (and never once scientifically falsified, despite quite a lot of trying, contrary to the claim that scientists never try), that it is simply unreasonable to allow the prior probability of any supernatural hypothesis to be anything more than remotely small.

    By analogy, no one thinks we should invest even a minute of labor or a dollar of money investigating whether gremlins knock down planes. That is not even a supernatural hypothesis–gremlins could be natural, normal, evolved organisms just like us and fluffy the cat. But the prior probability that they exist has been indirectly but sufficiently shown to be so remotely small, by vast amounts of scientific inquiry into the causes of plane crashes, and vast amounts of empirical observation by ordinary people, that there is just no worthwhile reason to consider it anymore. Unless some really amazing new evidence came along. But this never happens. Which is precisely my point.

    Thus, it isn’t that scientists “rule out” gremlin hypotheses as somehow methodologically outside the purview of science. It’s that there is simply no good reason to consider such hypotheses as likely–they are not even likely enough to do a high school science project on, much less any real, institutional, peer reviewed science.

    To draw the analogy over, brain science has consistently failed to find evidence of anything other than electrical and chemical activity in neurons having anything to do with any mental experiences of any kind, and explanations in terms of such physics consistently do a much better job fitting and predicting the facts than any other alternative, supernatural or not. Thus, that it is logically possible for science to test and confirm supernatural theories of cognition is irrelevant. There is simply no more reason to believe such research to be worthwhile than there is for the FAA to include gremlins in its crash investigation criteria.

    But I must be clear: I still do agree with Delfino’s methodological point, as well as the institutional point that scientists are doing exactly the wrong thing in the way they are trying to demarcate their field. I have made this point myself in my book Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism, but in much more direct and extensive detail on my blog:

    http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2007/01/defining-supernatural.html

    Richard Carrier, May 13, 2008 at 9:02 pm
  5. There is a small difficulty in acknowledging Delfino’s central argument, but then denouncing any attempts to expend money or manpower to further such research.

    While it is true that science may legitimately remove topics from consideration through indirect evidence, an entire system that is based on potentially untenable assumptions will obviously overlook certain evidence. It is much the same as misplacing your keys, and then looking for them in an entirely different location than where you misplaced them. Of course, you will never recover your keys, because not only were you looking in the wrong place for them, but there wasn’t even a chance you could see the keys from the area where you were searching for them.

    Whenever a flaw is uncovered within a system we have come to fundamentally acknowledge as “truthful” or “sound,” all reasonable efforts should be made to correct such flaws. To do other is to live in self ordained ignorance.

    Joseph Mogelnicki, June 27, 2008 at 2:29 pm
  6. If you want to say that scientists aren’t following the evidence, and that their theories aren’t being properly guided by reality, then you should provide some concrete evidence.

    Is there a general lack of philosophical sophistication among many scientists today? No doubt.

    Is there a similar lack of such sophistication among many philosophers? Indeed.

    Neither point indicates that we should consider “the supernatural” as part of the possible realm of scientific discovery, simply because the notion of “the supernatural” has not been coherently defined.

    If anyone is interested, I’ve recently written a rather scathing and thorough criticism of Delfino’s paper, “Replacing Methodological Naturalism,” on my blog:

    On Junk Philosophy And Naturalism: A Criticism of Robert A. Delfino

    Here’s the naked link, if you prefer:

    http://specterofreason.blogspot.com/2008/11/on-junk-philosophy-and-naturalism.html

    Jason Streitfeld, November 3, 2008 at 3:31 am
  7. I’m a lay person, no Phd or suchlike, just a keen interest in science and the philosophy of science, and I see I’m a little late to this discussion, but my 2 cents worth anyway:

    Mr. Delfino reads to me like another philosopher with a fascination for the concept of the supernatural, and an inadequate understanding of the philosophy of science.

    I’m basically in agreement with Jason Streitfeld (comment #6). If Delfino and his cohorts want scientists to consider supernatural causes, then they should come up with a COHERENT definition of what they mean by the word supernatural, and then present at least some real evidence for supernatural causes.

    Note to super-naturalists here: Just presenting one or more phenomena that may not be sufficiently explained by currently known natural causes is not necessarily evidence for supernatural causes.

    It’s a tall order, to be sure. I won’t be holding my breath for either the definition or the evidence to arrive, especially the latter.

    Stan Harris, April 18, 2009 at 9:36 pm
  8. Subsequent to my original post:

    Delfino read like a theist, so I looked him up and found out he’s an assistant professor at a Catholic university in NYC. Imagine my surprise!

    I can only assume that he’s completely serious and earnest in his writing, but I find it so hard to take him seriously. I just want to laugh out loud. I really do!

    His ideas on science are preposterous. I wonder if he has any idea how silly his theistic ideas on scientific methodology sound to most scientists.

    I mean, let’s really, really think about this for moment. First off, these “supernatural causes” would not be detectable by scientific methods or instruments, right? Does this then mean that whenever scientists encounter phenomena that cannot immediately be explained through reference to known natural causes, these phenomena should than be chalked up as “supernatural”?

    Well,(tongue firmly in cheek here) maybe this is
    a good idea. Just think of the bother, trouble and expense that could be avoided with this approach.

    Wow! Why have we not seen the wisdom of this until now? Why, we could even turn the whole enterprise of scientific inquiry back into the hands of the Catholic church!

    OK, I’m serious again. Delfino profoundly miss-apprehends the nature and foundations of scientific inquiry. He needs to either take a few more science classes, or go back to his philosophical and theological musings and forget about science altogether.

    Enough said for now.

    Stan Harris, April 19, 2009 at 4:22 am
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