Thursday, August 19, 2004

Do scientists really seek out "the truth"?...

In debating the merits of Intelligent Design the discussion will inevitably traverse into the mechanics of science and how, for the adherent to methodological naturalism (MN), said mechanics do not address any potential supernatural causes. Per the link, the definition of MN is given as:
…the philosophical tenet that, within scientific enquiry, one can only use naturalistic explanation - i.e. one's explanations must not make reference to the existence of supernatural forces and entities. Note that methodological naturalism does not hold that such entities or forces do not exist, but merely that one cannot use them within a scientific explanation. Methodological naturalism is often considered to be an implied working rule of all scientific research and logically entails neither philosophical naturalism nor atheism, though some would argue that it implies such a connection.
A sinister Catch-22 situation is seemingly produced when, after defining the process of MN as that of explaining phenomenon only within the boundaries of natural processes, the request is made that proponents of ID produce empirical evidence, as well as testable predictions, by which the claims of supernatural intervention could be scientifically tested. Should such evidence be presented, though, it typically ends up being a no-win situation for the proponent of ID. The reason for this is that the adherent to MN can always claim that since the evidence presented is empirical and entirely within the boundaries of MN, the phenomenon in question must have a natural explanation. Indeed, since the supernatural is, by definition, outside the bounds of MN then, also by definition, such "explanations" must be excluded from the equation. So it would appear that MN wins – or, rather, it can’t lose. There’s at least one little problem with MN’s Kobiyashi Maru maneuver though… it willfully ignores logical possibility. If the process of MN, by definition, excludes the effects of the supernatural, then it is logically possible for science to ignore the truth. Consider again that the goal of science is to address only the questions that pertain to physical reality, through the use of measurable empirical experience. Even the most ardent purveyor of MN would admit that science cannot prove anything with 100% accuracy. Given that, there must at least be the logical possibility that the supernatural is responsible for any given set of phenomenon. Yet, if the methodology in practice disallows such an explanation from being submitted, then the methodology could potentially be disallowing the correct explanation. Surely a methodology which cannot, in principle, point to the correct explanation – i.e., the truth – is faulty. Hat tip: J. P. Moreland’s book Scaling the Secular City. Update: Letters from Babylon has a post titled, What is the Goal of Science?, in which John Zimmer states,
Serge at Imago Dei asks in a recent post, “Is the goal of science to discover the truth, or merely come up with the best naturalistic explanation for complex phenomena?” Serge, as well as the Dawn Treader and Macht in comments to Serge’s post, suggests that the goal of science is to discover the truth. Though I greatly respect these Christian thinkers, I must disagree. Instead, I argue that the goal of science is to describe the natural world naturalistically and provide an increasingly useful model of physical principles. (emphasis added)
If that was, in fact, a proper description of the goal of science, then the answer to the question of this post is: No, scientists do not seek out the truth. They simply seek an explanation which must fit within the boundaries of their discipline. Regardless of whether the explanation is correct. Hat tip: Imago Dei

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