Friday, June 05, 2009

Intellectual Hegemony and The Thought Police

Characters of the Wild Web Number 12: This guy was caught subverting Law and Disorder

In this blog post scientific lawman Larry Moran introduces a “world view continuum” that runs all the way from Young Earth Creationists, through ID theorists and Theistic Evolutionists to Materialist Evolution. Larry objects that this spectrum is misleading because in his view there is a qualitative discontinuity somewhere between theistic evolution and materialist evolution. His motivation, I suspect, is that he wants to divide the world up into two opposing categories of people; fundamentalist materialists and the methodological law breakers he would consider guilty of “anti-science” subversion and superstition.

In order to try and get a handle on Larry’s views I traced a link back to an earlier essay of his entitled “Theistic Evolution: The Fallacy of the Middle Ground”. In this essay Larry starts with a quote from Eugenie Scott which tells us that “science restricts itself to explaining the natural world using natural causes”, a statement that is all but tautological; with this statement in mind we might be tempted to explain matter and energy using “natural causes” such as…er…matter and energy. However, Larry goes on to quote Michael Ruse who is worth quoting; but then Ruse is a philosopher with Quaker roots.

Michael Ruse: The methodological naturalist is the person who assumes that the world runs according to unbroken law; that humans can understand the world in terms of this law; and that science involves just such understanding without any reference to extra or supernatural forces like God. Whether there are such forces or beings is another matter entirely and simply not addressed by methodological naturalism. Hence, although indeed evolution as we understand it is a natural consequence of methodological naturalism, given the facts of the world as they can be discovered, in no sense is the methodological naturalist thereby committed to the denial of God's existence. It is simply that the methodological naturalist insists that, inasmuch as one is doing science, one avoid all theological or other religious references. In particular, one denies God a role in creation. [Michael Ruse (2002) "Methodological Naturalism Under Attack" p. 365]

Not bad; at least that’s intelligible and I think I can go along with most of it. Leaving aside Ruse’s references to God the crucial part of Ruse’ statement is this: “The methodological naturalist is the person who assumes that the world runs according to unbroken law; that humans can understand the world in terms of this law…” I identify Ruse’ “unbroken law” with my concept of “Law and Disorder”; that is, an assumed ontology whose behavior is described using a combination of only two mathematical objects: short algorithmic laws and statistics. These latter two objects, which respectively reside at the extreme ends of the order/disorder spectrum, describe many if not all the patterns in our world. Thus, I conclude that “methodological naturalism” is an epistemology based on the assumption of an ontology that is subject to a regime of Law and Disorder.

So, given the foregoing definitions I’m a “methodological naturalist” – almost, but not quite. I say “almost” because I keep a corner of reservation in my mind as I do about most things. Firstly, strict “methodological naturalism” is simply not a practical proposition. Many historical objects, for example, cannot be encapsulated using law and disorder only; the objects of history are in the main intrinsically complex and history is likely to remain an irreducibly narrative intense subject even if in principle history is ultimately the outcome of some kind of fundamental “law and disorder” physics like String Theory. But I would go even further than this “in practice” critique of methodological naturalism. In fact I would want to express a fundamental skepticism and reservation about it. Although I favour and even like the idea that the cosmos is in principle (if not in practice) descriptively reducible to some fundamentalist vision of law and disorder, I certainly have my doubts. My position then is that of a skeptical methodological naturalist. As far as I’m aware there may be objects out there that are not descriptively reducible to the two classes of mathematical objects that come under the rubric of “law and disorder”. In fact it just seems all to humanly convenient to posit a world that can be exclusively rendered in law and disorder terms which, surprise, surprise, make that world conceptually and epistemologically amenable to human probing. Isn’t somebody just trying to defend their intellectual comfort zone? I find the intellectual hubris behind this kind of unreserved assumption repugnant. Moreover, given that “Law and Disorder” objects are those that are most amenable to scientific epistemology, is it any surprise that the most vociferous proponent in favour of the view that the categories of “Law and Disorder” are exhaustive, turns out to be – yes, you’ve guessed it – a career scientist.

It is no surprise then that Larry’s essay proceeds by assuming the foregoing concept of naturalism. In fact he seems to simply take it for granted that methodological naturalism is exclusive and nowhere in his essay does he attempt to justify this exclusiveness. He just asserts it as rule of science; end of story, so shut up! Unlike Ruse who may well be agnostic about objects transcending the categories of Law and Disorder Larry Moran takes a dim view of anyone who might delve into the realms beyond his stated terms of reference. Consider the following passages, for instance, which are taken from his essay:

Scientists, on the other hand, argue that an interventionist God who guides evolution violates the rules of science.

If science really does have to be strictly naturalistic, then even the softest version of intelligent design—that promoted by Michael Denton—is ruled out because God creates the laws of physics and chemistry. This point is worth emphasizing. If one's explanation of the natural world posits a God who created the laws of physics and chemistry then one is not behaving like a scientist. Of course, there's even more of a conflict if one's God is supposed to have set up the universe in order to produce humans.

On the surface it seems that all forms of religion conflict with science in one way or another. It seems as though there's no room at all for religious explanations of the natural world as long as we agree that scientists have to stick to naturalism. Do scientists really insist on this restriction? Yes, they do.

As Popper grappled with the nature of science and attempted to characterize ,it he insisted that he was not presuming to draw a line round the whole of rational discourse, but instead was trying to draw a line within it*. Would Popper have used emotive language like “violates the rules of science” or “supernatural explanations” to describe discourse beyond the realm amenable to “Law and Disorder” science? Some atheists, on the other hand, seem determined to annex the whole of rational discourse into a catholic empire of “Law and Disorder”. What makes me suspicious of them is that they are not content to accept that the efficacy of scientific epistemology fades at the edges as ontology moves into the complex middle ground between law and disorder. Instead they are proactively campaigning against middle ground ontologies and define those active in such areas as anti-science and anti-rational. They seek universal conformity to their proprietary concept of “behaving like a scientist”, the only valid form of epistemic behavior in their view. They don’t recognise limits to science simply because everyone, without exception, is supposed confine their discourse within the limits of a science beyond whose scope nothing else is presumed to validly exist. This is simply unfashionable cultural imperialism.

Presumably God falls outside the law and disorder category and into the “supernatural” middle category because He/She/It is a-prior complex and narrative intense. Therefore someone like myself, who at the very least is conjecturing about deity and who is giving plenty of space to ID theorists, would be portrayed as in conflict with science, perhaps even hostile to it, simply because the middle ground between law and disorder is excluded a-priori as an illegitimate realm of study for any human being; or to put it in Larry’s terms “Do scientists really insist on this restriction? Yes, they do.” Well, we certainly know one scientist who insists on it.

It would be wrong and unfair to suggest that all atheists are enthralled by a kind of intellectual hegemony. People like Paul Davies realise that the deeper questions of primary ontology and aseity are still up for the grabs and therefore open to speculation. In his book “The Goldilocks Enigma” Davies submits his own (non-theistic) speculations for consideration. But when delving into such questions it is by no means obvious why the ontology that sustains and creates our universe should be a law and disorder ontology, or even an ontology that is easily accessible to science (String theory, although a law and disorder ontology, currently has an accessibility problem). In any case it is far from clear that the problem of absolute necessity will be solved with a law and disorder ontology and in fact may have a solution completely inaccessible to finite minds.

I have no problems with atheism per se; at least in the sense of it being a belief that the underlying primary ontology of aseity is not theistic. What I do have a problem with is intellectual hegemony. Intellectual hegemony may in part be an outcome of a lack of reflexiveness; that is, an inability to turn critical analysis on itself and become aware of its own presumed objects (whether those objects are, say, “science” or “intelligence”). If one can’t see those objects, but instead sees the world through them, then one is unable to submit them to scrutiny. If one perceives that others are not captivated by one’s own intellectual enthrallment then the thought of reviewing one’s enthrallment may be too much to bear. A feeling of unease and even anger may set in and this in turn lead to attempts to police the thoughts of others.

* See Popper’s “Logic of Scientific Discovery”,


Anonymous said...

There is another school of thought, you know. We can investigate the world for explanations that involve only consistent and quantifiable natural law precisely because it pays appropriate respect to God to figure out the mechanism that the physical world tells us is how God makes things work.

Timothy V Reeves said...

I certainly agree " pays appropriate respect to God to figure out the mechanism that the physical world tells us is how God makes things work.".

However can you elaborate how the school of thought that seeks consistency and quantifiable distinguishes itself from my own position? Thanks