Unnatural Reasoning

Phillip Johnson said it. Others, as well, but Johnson is most famous.

Phillip Johnson is the acknowledged godfather of the modern Intelligent Design movement. He is also the supposed author or major inspiration for the so-called Wedge Document, which spells out the agenda and the goals of the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture (CSC). Johnson and other fellows of the CSC are the prime advocates of Intelligent Design, a dressed up version of creationism. The two major goals are stated as:

To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.

To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.

More specifically what Johnson said and what other creationists are saying is that the study of science should not exclude the supernatural. A broad reading of modern creationist literature reveals the recurring plea for inclusion of supernatural processes in modern science. The same theme comes up in many activities promoting creationism, as well. That theme is many issues in modern science cannot be resolved by relying on purely natural explanations. Creationist Walter Bradley made a statement to that effect at a symposium held at Southern Methodist University in 1992. The title of the program was “Darwinism: Scientific Inference or Philosophical Preference?” It was the first major appearance of Intelligent Design at a public meeting, and many of the famous creationists we have come to know so well made their first appearance at this symposium.

Bradley at the time headed up the Mechanical Engineering Department at Texas A&M University, and he said something to the effect that supernatural or non-materialistic approaches should be included in the study of science. I was amazed and confused and asked for an example. In his reply, Professor Bradley mentioned the divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If I was amazed and confused before, then I was even more amazed and confused afterward. I felt I had met my match and no clever response came to my foggy brain at the time.

Creationist Michael Behe makes a similar argument for inclusion of non-natural (i.e., supernatural) processes in science. He conceded in his testimony at the Kitzmiller trial in 2005 that his definition of acceptable science would include astrology. At the same trial the testimony of creationist Scott Minnich “acknowledged that for ID to be considered science, the ground rules of science have to be broadened to allow consideration of supernatural forces.”

Michael Denton’s book Evolution, a Theory in Crisis was one of two that originally got Phillip Johnson interested in taking on the iron grip that naturalism holds on the study of science. The other book was Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Johnson picked up both books while in London about 25 years ago and became intrigued by the idea of challenging the natural basis of modern science. Dawkins is a noted scientist, author, atheist and fierce opponent of creation in all forms. The Denton book is the polar opposite of Dawkins’ philosophy, and it provides a remarkable view into the creationists’ argument for the supernatural.

For example, Denton repeatedly points out unexplained (at least to him) matters such as the origin of life on Earth and the evolutionary development of incredibly complex biological structures and processes. The Darwinian theory of evolution involves the process of natural selection to retain beneficial features that occur in succeeding generations while eliminating detrimental characteristics or even those that are viable but do not compete well with the novel features. The natural process of random gene mutations is seen as the origin of novel features from one generation to the next. The problem is we know well the structure and workings of existing life forms, but we have no similar, direct knowledge of their antecedents. It is very hard to work out a scenario that could lead from a life form known only in the fossil record to its present day descendent. Crucial to the problem is that every intervening generation must be biologically viable. Each generation must comprise organism that can survive, thrive and reproduce.

Denton asserts that no natural explanation has been put forward to explain any such sequence that involves major changes in body plan of a living organisms, and he leaves the implication that some supernatural process is the only reasonable explanation remaining. Why, then, do not scientist accept the possibility of the supernatural? Why does science continue to look only for natural explanations?

There are a number of ways to answer that question, and one of them is this: Several hundred years ago scientists gave up looking for supernatural solutions to problems because the approach just did not work. Using magic spells and incantations to facilitate turning base metals into gold led nowhere. Assigning imaginary properties to different metals and combining based on these supposed properties to produce the property of gold was a fruitless endeavor. Only a rigid and pragmatic approach to the problem at hand paid back for the effort invested. Establishing a base of real-world knowledge and using that as a starting point for future exploration turned out to be immensely productive and satisfying to the mind, as well.

Another reason science and the practical world came to reject the supernatural was that it was finally absent from people’s lives. While people may have heard stories of miracles and may even have wished for miraculous answers to their problems, nobody could ever demonstrate that there was such a thing as the supernatural. Whenever we discovered a new and marvelous phenomenon or object, ultimately there was always an explanation for it in the natural world.

For over twenty years I, along with some friends, have underwritten a monetary prize for anybody who can demonstrate the supernatural (or the paranormal). The prize is part of a program called The North Texas Skeptics Paranormal Challenge and is currently at $12,000. We receive about a half dozen applicants every year, and so far nobody has ever gotten past the preliminary demonstration stage. We always ask claimants to show us something before we will take them seriously, and nobody has ever showed up with anything to demonstrate. To me the inability of anybody to demonstrate (or show) evidence of the supernatural is a strong argument that it does not exist.

I have been hoping somebody would ask me why scientists reject the supernatural, because I have in mind an answer that should illustrate the idea. It only takes a minute or so to explain by example:

The gold was locked in the vault, and when the vault was later opened, the gold was gone. How did this happen?

It is not possible that somebody cracked the combination lock, because the lock is the most modern and sophisticated design and has been deemed impossible to compromise without the combination.

It is not possible that somebody revealed the combination, because the combination is known to only one person, and that person is of impeccable character and would never participate in such a scheme.

Nobody surreptitiously obtained the combination to the vault and proceeded to use it to open the vault, because the combination was never written down.

Neither could the person holding the combination have stolen gold, because [1] his character is impeccable character (see above) and [2] he was closely watched all the time by other people of impeccable character and never went near the vault during the time the gold went missing.

The vault was not drilled out or blown open, because that would have left marks that could not be repaired, and the vault shows no sign of being attacked.

And so on.

The remaining possibility is that some supernatural process was involved:

1. A magic hand reached through the steel wall of the vault and withdrew the gold back through the steel wall.

2. The gold was dematerialized and then rematerialized outside the vault and into the hands of the thief.

3. A thief with amazing mental powers read the mind of the person with the combination and used the combination to open the vault.

Needless to say, all of these solutions to the puzzle will be rejected by any right-thinking detective, and other avenues will be investigated:

1. The person with the combination is not so honest as supposed, and he gave the combination to the thief.

2. The gold was never put into the vault. Those who said they put it there are lying.

3. The vault with the gold was taken away, and an identical vault was substituted, without the gold.

4. The vault design is not so impregnable, after all, and a clever thief cracked the combination and opened the vault.

Most rational people will agree with the argument I have put forward here, but an amazing portion of otherwise sensible people will argue that biological science must be treated differently. Whenever the matter has gone to legal arbitration, as in the court cases McLean vs. Arkansas Board of Education and Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District, it has been easy to demonstrate a religious motivation behind the actionable offense. (There seem to be a few with no apparent religious ax to grind, and David Berlinski stands out. With no outward religious leanings, Berlinski seems to be chiefly of a contrarian nature.) Also, the writings and actions of various proponents of creationism demonstrate a religious agenda. It quickly becomes apparent that advocates of supernatural explanations, especially with respect to areas that touch on religious beliefs, are allowing religious conviction to trump objectivity in these matters.

Some religious adherents and mainly creationists denounce scientist and writer Carl Sagan’s statement that “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” This leaves out a lot of stuff that these people hold dear, and they are never going to let go as long as there is a word that can be bent or a school board that can be coaxed. And that is why scientists and other skeptics will never be able to stand back from this confrontation of ideas.

One thought on “Unnatural Reasoning

  1. Pingback: Fool’s Argument | Skeptical Analysis

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