by Denyse O'Leary
Hunter contrasts two views of science: rationalism and empiricism: Rationalism posits a theory of nature and looks for the evidence to support it. Empiricism assembles evidence, and builds on the evidence to form a picture of nature. Without insisting on total symmetry, Hunter uses Rene Descartes as a general example of rationalism and Francis Bacon as a general example of empiricism. Both thinkers made massive contributions to science and are honoured worldwide today.
What difference does it make which approach you take to science?
Well, here are some differences:
1. If you are a rationalist, you will favour the evidence for the pattern you think nature should follow and discount the evidence against it. If you are convinced that there must be no evidence of intelligent design in nature, you can discard any evidence for it without qualms. For example, Hunter notes, "Descartes argued that having a plausible yet incorrect description was better than no description at all." (P. 18)
However, if you are an empiricist like Bacon, you will be much less likely to do that. You would prefer to alter your idea of what the pattern shows.
2. An empiricist makes a distinction between experimental sciences like chemistry and physics and historical sciences like geology and evolution. The subjects of experimental sciences are here before us in the present day and can be directly tested in real time. The rationalist assumes that all past events that fit his rationally derived theory should be treated the same way as the current findings of experimental sciences. Darwin was definitely in this camp:
... Darwin argued for an uninterrupted continuum of natural history. Indeed, for theological naturalists there must be an uninterrupted continuum. There must be no principled distinction between the experimental and historical sciences. Natural laws that explain how the planets move must also be sufficient to explain how they originated. ... Our complex world, they say, must unfold as a result of the interplay of natural laws." (P. 38 )
3. Theistic naturalism is NOT a refundable proposition, because once you are in it, there is no way out. Remember, you are to discard evidence that does not fit the pattern. Hunter writes,
The problem with science is not that the naturalistic approach might occasionally be inadequate. The problem is that science would never know any better. This is science's blind spot. When problems are encountered, theological naturalism assumes that the correct naturalistic solution has not yet been found. Nonnatural phenomena will be interpreted as natural, regardless of how implausible the story becomes. Science has no mechanism to detect the possibility of nonnatural phenomena. It does not consider the likelihood that a phenomenon might not be purely naturalistic. (P. 44-45)
What happens then? If design IS in fact the best explanation for a given phenomenon, theistic naturalism will simply mislead us. As Hunter notes,
Theological naturalism has no way to distinguish a paradigm problem from a research problem. It cannot consider the POSSIBILITY that there is no naturalistic explanation for the DNA code. If a theory of natural history has problems - and many of them have their share - the problems are always viewed as research problems and never as paradigm problems. (P. 45)
As a result, theistic naturalism can never contemplate the possibility that its explanations are wrong (unless they are replaced by other naturalistic explanations):
There are problems with many naturalistic explanations, but this is not why naturalism is ailing. It is ailing because it cannot contemplate the possibility that it may be wrong. It cannot evaluate these problems from a larger perspective. Naturalistic explanations work well in many cases and break down in other cases. But theological naturalists cannot allow their science the latitude to incorporate nonnaturalistic explanations, or even to consider such a hypothesis. For them science must be firmly restricted to naturalistic explanations. (P. 50)
One specific result of theistic naturalism - which we see every day in the popular science press - is that any naturalistic explanation, no matter how foolish, appears more believable to the naturalist than any non-naturalistic explanation. THAT observation helped me understand something that had puzzled me much, while co-writing The Spiritual Brain: No matter how foolish a naturalistic proposition regarding the human mind was, it had to be preferred to a sensible non-naturalist one.
My favourite example - with apologies to those who are put off by its sheer vulgarity - is the Big Bazooms Theory of Human Evolution: According to that theory, men like women with big busts because they know whether they are still fertile (and what men like is governed by the desire of their selfish genes to spread themselves around).
Now, an obviously simpler and more reasonable explanation for a masculine preference for well-endowed women would be our general human desire for abundance rather than scarcity. But wait! The simpler explanation may feel unsatisfactory to the committed naturalist. After all, it implies the existence of a mind that prefers. And the mind is one of the very things that naturalism must consider an illusion. Our "minds" are the buzz of neurons in our brains. Some of that buzz is generated by the selfish genes that want to spread themselves. So whatever men prefer in women must somehow be linked to the women's fertility. That is a clumsy, complex, and unconvincing explanation but the committed naturalist knows that it should be preferred to any explanation that allows the man's mind to cause anything to happen by itself.
As Hunter notes
... those committed to naturalistic explanations, like those committed to supernaturalistic explanations, can always devise a theory to explain what we observe. Like supernaturalism, naturalism can never be judged a failure, for there is no test for failure. Failed hypotheses simply lead to more complex hypotheses.
Theological naturalism does not and cannot provide a balanced assessment of its own theories, and eventually moves to simply silence those who disagree. After all, God's honour is at stake. And there can be no uncertainty about that.
Next: Part Three: Why rationalists cannot live with uncertainty
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).
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