How does the failure to define naturalism affect Lowder’s argument for naturalism from the history of science?

Posted on 07/18/12 5 Comments

In retrospect, it may have been good to put this at the end of my previous article. But better late than never. How does Lowder’s failure to define naturalism adequately affect his argument for naturalism from the history of science? To put it mildly, it doesn’t do it any favors.

First, let’s recount the argument itself (which I’ve excerpted from here):

If there is a single theme unifying the history of science, it is that naturalistic explanations work. The history of science contains numerous examples of naturalistic explanations replacing supernatural ones and no examples of supernatural explanations replacing naturalistic ones. Indeed, naturalistic explanations have been so successful that even most scientific theists concede that supernatural explanations are, in general, implausible, even on the assumption that theism is true. Such explanatory success is antecedently more likely on naturalism–which entails that all supernaturalistic explanations are false–than it is on theism. Thus the history of science is some evidence for naturalism and against theism. (emphasis added)

So what is this thing called naturalism that is more compatible with the history of science than is theism?

As I’ve argued, Lowder cannot give a clear example. Thus, things end up looking like this:

Tom and Marsha awoke to a thump in the darkness. Marsha opined, “I think Billy is trying to sneak in his window after staying out too late.”

But Tom had a different hypothesis. “I say that x made the sound.”

Marsha looked at Tom quizzically. “What exactly is x supposed to be Tom?”

“X is the hypothesis that something natural made the sound. Maybe it was the sump pump. Or the wind blowing a branch against the window. Who knows what we’ll find out?”

Marsha looked skeptical. “And what if it was Tom?”

“Well then Tom made the sound by some part of his body contacting some part of the window sill, in which case it really was a natural cause anyway.”

Marsha (rolling her eyes): “I’m going back to sleep.”

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  • R0c1

    Apologies that I have not have not been following the whole debate…

    I would be happy to taboo the word “naturalism” and substitute in “reductionism”. Randal, would you?

    Reductionism: A belief that reality itself is not made of multiple levels even though our models of reality can have multiple representations. The map is not the territory. — http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Mind_projection_fallacy , http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/The_map_is_not_the_territory

    Reductionism entails that things like persons and airplanes and gods are reducible to other stuff – they are not ontologically basic. On the other hand, a “supernatural” explanation appeals to ontologically basic mental things, mental entities that cannot be reduced to nonmental entities. — http://lesswrong.com/lw/tv/excluding_the_supernatural/

    • randal

      First of all, what is and is not reducible and how does one decide?

      Second, why do you think persons are reducible to something else? I claim that we can explain the origin of the comment you are currently reading by attributing it to a person. Why would you think there is something more basic analysis that can describe this comment (by which I mean the semantic content) in terms other than appeal to the mental intentions of a person?

    • Crude

      Reductionism entails that things like persons and airplanes and gods are reducible to other stuff – they are not ontologically basic. On the other hand, a “supernatural” explanation appeals to ontologically basic mental things, mental entities that cannot be reduced to nonmental entities

      First, this has the effect of gutting Jeff’s argument wholesale anyway – science doesn’t establish this kind of reductionism, and really can’t be expected to. Heck, even chemistry is arguably not reducible. See: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/chemistry/#CheRed This before getting into the particular difficulties of this kind of thinking re: quantum systems.

      Second, it still has the effect of turning far and away most (arguably all) past ‘supernatural’ appeals into naturalistic ones. On the one hand, I think this is inevitable. On the other hand, I think naturalists are going to find this hard to swallow, since it blows up the narrative.

  • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder
  • Raymond Ingles

    As I asked you before:

    I think we can phrase the point as, “over time we keep finding more
    and more ‘sufficient secondary causes’ such that the number of
    ‘scholastic miracles’ has steadily decreased over time”. (E.g. this unfortunate case.)

    I see no reason that this trend will not continue. What would you say if we managed to account for every phenomenon, including an apparent resurrection, via ‘sufficient secondary causes’? Would that have no theological implications?