A Critique of Robert T. Pennock’s Attempt to Arbitrarily Define Supernaturalism Out of Science.
In Robert Pennocks’s article “Supernaturalist Explanations and the Prospects for a Theistic Science or “How do you know it was the Lettuce?” the attempt is made to arbitrarily define the supernatural out of a proper view of science. (See his article here: https://www.msu.edu/~pennock5/research/ ... tExpl.html)
Mr. Pennock is responding to a “Creationist” Phillip Johnson.
Pennock reconstructs Johnson’s argument like this:
Phillip Johnson argues that evolutionary theory rides on the metaphysical coat-tails of a scientific naturalism that denies by fiat any supernatural intervention, and that if it were not for this "dogmatic speculative philosophy" Creationism would be recognized as the better theory. He recommends that scientific naturalism be replaced by a theistic science that embraces the absolute truth of divine interventions in the world and incorporates supernatural explanations.
He responds by attempting to show that “Science” no more presupposes any sort of atheism than other common jobs like that of a plumber or doctor. He also wishes to distinguish between “methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism.” This distinction, it turns out, is a major foundation of his response.
It is misleading for Creationists to characterize science in general and to define evolution in particular and as being "godless." Science is godless in the same way that plumbing is godless. Evolutionary biology is no more or less based on a "dogmatic philosophy" of naturalism than are medical science and farming. Why should Johnson find methodological naturalism so pernicious and threatening in the one context and not the others? Must we really be seriously "open-minded" about supernatural explanations generally? As Bertrand Russell said, it is good to keep an open mind, but not so open that our minds fall out! Surely it is unreasonable to complain of a "priesthood" of plumbers because they only consider naturalistic explanations of stopped drains and do not consider the "alternative hypothesis" that the origin of the backed-up toilet was the design of an intervening malicious spirit. Would it not be bizarre to reintroduce theistic explanations in the agricultural sciences and have agronomists tell farmers that their crop failure is simply part of God's curse upon the land because of Adam's disobedience, or suggest that they consider the possibility that the Lord is punishing them for some moral offense and that it may not be fertilizer they need but contrition and repentance?
He continues with this summary of what the proper role of Science should be:
Given the nature and limitations of scientific modes of investigation, the proper role of the scientist is to search for natural causes of such occurrences and not to beg off the investigation by attributing them to supernatural interventions, divine or otherwise. Clearly scientists are not being dogmatic or atheistic in proceeding under the methodological heuristic that such events have natural explanations.
He continues his argument by attempting a “reductio” of Johnson’s position by comparing it to the medical field. It would be silly to teach medical students how to perform exorcisms. According to Pennock however, such education would be necessarily required given the truth of Johnson’s position.
Pennock also presents a clever illustration about a lawyer who refuses to defend the civil rights of Jews. This particular lawyer does not happen to be a civil defense lawyer, and so Pennock argues, that it would be unfair of us to paint her as a bigot for not defending the civil rights of a Jew. This, he says, is what “Creationists” do when they accuse “Science” of being anti-God.
…science does not have a special rule just to keep out divine interventions, but rather a general rule that it does not handle any supernatural agents or powers.
He goes on to demonstrate that “Science” can have explanatory power by using an illustration about the sun. When asked “Why does the sun shine” two different meanings are possible. “Why” in the teleological sense is something for the poets (he says) while “why” in the genetic sense is the realm of science.
It is here that I can interject my criticism of Pennock.
I cannot find much to disagree with him about when it comes to the job of the plumber or doctor. These men do necessarily rely on their empirical sense perceptions in order to perform their daily tasks.
Is it true however, that in doing so, they are totally devoid of any position on God? I would assert rather, that their actions have very profound presuppositions concerning the nature of the universe and God.
When these implicit presuppositions are realized, then Pennock’s case falls apart. His distinctions become nothing more than arbitrary assertions about the nature of reality; and worse, to perform science at all, he must contradict his own idea of methodological naturalism.
To put it simply, there is no such thing as methodological naturalism in principal. It is only an asserted position by the likes of Pennock. His opponents were correct to refer to it as “methodological atheism.”
When fixing pipes it is vital to remember certain physical laws of nature. We could begin by asking why the pipe is leaking. Speaking of this in a teleological way would be unhelpful to the plumber.
Is it true then, that to describe the leaky pipe in a genetic way does not require any position regarding the nature of God?
Well…in order to fix the leak, the plumber must keep a few things in mind. He can’t forget to bring his wrench under the house with him. Nor should he leave his sealant. He knows he needs these things because they have worked to fix leaks in the past. He realizes that if he uses these tools just right, he can fix the leak.
This reliance on past information to inform him about the future did not come about due to any empirical observation on the part of the plumber. Rather, he simply believes that the future will be like the past. (To say that reality has always acted so…and thus is reliable, is to claim that you simply believe it for that reason. My argument here is that it is not a belief based on empirical data, but rather on conclusions drawn from empirical data. It is impossible to observe the future being like the past.)
Here we see the first flaw in the plumber’s so called “methodological naturalism.” He is already, necessarily, presupposing certain conclusions based on other empirical data.
He must also presuppose the validity of his sense experiences. (You can base your belief in the reliability of your sense experiences on certain experiences you’ve had in the past…but this begs the question that your past experiences are reliable.)
He must also presuppose that abstract universal concepts have some form of union with random particular objects else he’d never know how to approach a leaky pipe. One particular leak may require duct tape and a wrench…another may require an Indian rain dance or a stick of dynamite.
I’ve listed three non-empirically verifiable (in principal) presuppositions that the plumber must hold before approaching the leaky pipe.
According to Pennock, such things are beyond the realm of scientific discussion. He also says that “Science” “has a general rule that it doesn’t handle any supernatural agents or powers.”
However, as I’ve just shown, the plumber necessarily approaches his task with at least three presuppositions regarding the nature of reality. Reality must be uniform (in order for future events to be like the past); reality must be intelligible (in order for him to know anything about it via his sense experiences); and there must be some form of union between abstract thoughts and particular objects in reality (in order for him to reason about his sense experiences.)
Christian Philosopher Greg Bahnsen concludes:
The activity of science is never impartial; there is always a substructure of metaphysical or religiously motivated belief. If there were not, science would be futile, its feet firmly planted in mid-air. The naturalistic scientist claims to work with "the facts." Yet even to speak of "facts" is to make some metaphysical declaration concerning the existence of factuality itself. The only "honest" metaphysics for the philosopher who rejects God's revelation is an agnostic solipsism, an "I-don't-know-and-it-can't-be-known-ism." Yet, if there is one metaphysics besides Christianity that the scientist abhors, it is solipsism. But, on what basis can he discredit this "logical" position? What source of information can refute it? - http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pa001.htm
I would assert along with Dr. Bahnsen, that only the Christian God can provide for these preconditions.
Even if such a bold claim were rejected, it is still clear that Mr. Pennock was careless in assuming that a naturalistic procedure could exist without alluding to metaphysical or even spiritual issues.