Naturalism, Supernaturalism, and Motivated Reasoning

At the ID website, Uncommon Descent, a person who goes by the name of “Mirrortothesun” makes the following thread comment:

Here’s the problem with every single post on this site, including this one. They are all examples of motivated reasoning. The authors start with what they wish were the truth– that evolution is false– and then they look desperately for evidence that their wish is true. They construct arguments around that wish. Ultimately it is just intellectual dishonesty and propaganda, alas.

Having followed Uncommon Descent for a while now, I think it’s a fair observation—even dead-on. And it clearly hit a nerve at the website because Barry Arrington, a regular contributor to Uncommon Descent, made a whole separate post in retort, highlighting Richard Lewontin as an example of an evolutionary naturalist who is also a motivated reasoner:

Perhaps Mirror has never read evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin’s famous “divine foot” screed.

Contra Arrington, Richard Lewontin never actually offered a “screed” in defense of naturalism. His well-known comment on naturalism is nowhere near to being a screed. Instead, it’s tone conveys that of an honest man; a man capable of frankness:

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

That’s an example of a man who’s thought about the relation of philosophy to science, but perhaps not thought quite as much about the politics of saying it out loud. And it’s easy to imagine a young earth creationist like Albert Mohler saying the same thing (by simply switching out the Bible for science and supernaturalism for materialism):

We take the side of the Bible in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the evangelical community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to the Bible. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to reject a supernatural explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to the Bible to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce supernatural explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that supernaturalism is an absolute, for we cannot allow an Atheist Foot in the door.

Does this mean we should treat Lewontin with the intellectual contempt that we might treat Albert Mohler? Hardly. Unlike Mohler, Lewontin is promoting a method of getting at the truth of matters with an exceptional track record. And Lewontin’s point is a fair one: there really are things that can wreck the scientific enterprise, one of them being miracles—the Divine Foot in the door. A couple of other things that can wreck science (but that Lewontin doesn’t address) are the following:

  • an extreme epistemic skepticism that insists that we cannot, from our current and local observations, really extrapolate universal physical laws—laws that hold for all times and places.
  • The denial of causation.
  • Reasoning from authority.
  • A priori reasoning absent experimental verification (which is why string theory is increasing in trouble with physicists—it’s not producing obviously testable ideas).

Now, of course, there are some a priori assumptions at work to even get science going (trust that laws are universal; that causation is not illusory, etc). And, of course, tenacious or motivated reasoning can also disrupt the progress of science. When Albert Einstein, for example, quipped that God does not play dice, Neils Bohr said the following:

Stop telling God what he can do.

And, at bottom, this is Barry Arrington’s critique of Richard Lewontin. Arrington wants the God option kept on the table.

And it can be for anyone who wants to keep it there.

Perhaps the reconciliation between IDers and strict naturalists could be this: let science work as if God does not exist and see what kind of world emerges from its focus on wholly secondary and material causes. If science runs up against things utterly beyond its ability to plausibly explain, then maybe you can conclude that, in those cases, God is directly at work, independent of matter and physical law, doing things supernaturally.

But, let science work. Positing supernaturalism prematurely surely makes science impossible (Lewontin’s point). Science is, by its very nature, amenable only to secondary (that is, material) causes. To echo Hamlet and Wittgenstein, the rest is silence (or philosophical inference). The induction to a First Cause—or rejection of the God hypothesis—belongs to you. On the Final Question—the ontological mystery, the mystery of Being itself—you must be judge and jury. But it makes no sense, if you are a theist, to be bitter or angry toward Richard Lewonton because he admits no divine foot in the door and thinks you’re silly to do so. Science must always be conducted in the realm of secondary causes anyway.

Thus, the whole dripping-with-cynicism attitude toward strict evolutionary naturalists that accompanies the Uncommon Descent website is misplaced. If you’re a theist and are going to be mad at somebody, maybe it should be God for not making His existence more obviously inferred from the secondary causes that can be reasoned about scientifically.

When you can’t kick the boss, you kick the cat.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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