web analytics

Is Science the Only Way to Know All Things Important?

In a recent blog entry I tried to get to the ‘root’ of the contention between those who think Intelligent Design is not science and those who think it is.  In that entry I made three basic claims:

  1. Many people believe science is the only way to know anything that is important.
  2. By science they expressly insist on only allowing naturalistic explanations.
  3. Objectors to ID as science believe they are behaving rationally and reasonably.

My point was not to argue the validity of any of the views, but rather present them.  As far as I’m concerned these basic claims represent the crux of the issue, all else is distraction.  I also contended that if ID proponents would drop their claim to be legitimately science, much of the ‘heat’ would go away.  Recent comments on my entries certainly have corroborated that.

There are a number of reasons why IDers won’t drop the claim, nor do I think that they should.  In #2 above, it might be presented as ‘methodological naturalism’ which basically means not to appeal to non-observable mechanisms to explain things, in particular, non-naturalistic ones.  (Some non-observable mechanism have been invoked, say Quantum Mechanics, but it is argued that in principle they might somehow one day be observed).  The question must be asked:  what is to separate methodological naturalism from philosophical naturalism?

This is the first horn of the problem.  I would amend what constitutes ‘methodological naturalism’ to mean, basically, not needlessly appealing to non-naturalistic explanations.  In other words, if the evidence warranted looking into a non-naturalistic explanation then people should.  A method is not a law of nature.  Methodological naturalism can be a good general rule, but if you can’t think of ideas on how you might imagine the evidence pointing to non-naturalistic explanations, then you aren’t operating on methodological naturalism at all:  you are de facto a philosophical naturalist.  It then follows that it is no surprise if your ‘science’ never produces evidence for the existence of God or his character.

That is a debate worth having.  I was not surprised that comments immediately came wishing to debate it.  I was surprised that no one wanted to dig into #1:  Science is the only way to know anything important.

This, like #2, is something that most skeptics readily embrace and are not ashamed of.  It is also a critical difference of opinion between theists and skeptics/atheists.  Heck, it divides skeptics from almost every person on the planet.  Most people do not believe that science is in fact the only way to know anything important.  Many people believe that science goes too far in thinking that it can provide authoritative information on such critical areas such as self-awareness, human consciousness, beauty, love, poetry, affection, loyalty, altruism, etc.   Reducing human consciousness to brain the way the materialist reductionists go might be a logical necessity of the Philosophical Naturalistic program, and it may be a fact that on an MRI thought appears as chemical reactions, but most people understand that they actually experience something altogether different.

Dissecting a frog gives you some information about a frog, but watching a live frog actually go about its life gives even more information- information unavailable once you’ve killed it.  Still more information about frogs is available only if you’re actually a frog.  Some might say that science has done some good work with dissection, and a little more on observing the live thing, but it goes too far when it aims to speak authoritatively about every person’s experience of reality.

They might say:  “Dan Dennett, YOUR experience of reality may just be gooey brain matter, but speak for yourself!”

Here is what I am driving at.  Science is very good at learning certain things about reality but in other areas it is limited.  Let’s pretend for a moment that IDers decided that they aren’t legitimately science, but they still believe that the best interpretation of biological systems is still that they are designed.  Here is where we’d immediately see #1 from above kick in.  “Aha!  But scientific evidence is the best way to know anything of importance!”

But is that the case?  Could it be that something is not properly ‘legitimate science’ but still be true?  In a conflict between ‘legitimate science’ or some other method (say, the historical method), must we choose the ‘scientific’ one?  How if the very question under discussion is whether or not God actually inserted himself into our world to reveal himself?  It is self-evident that if science excludes from considering such things that it will produce no evidence for it.  Fine, but it is not self-evident that the historical method should exclude the possibility that God actually acted.

And there we see the rub.   If there are other ways of learning important facts of reality than ‘science’ then we might just be forced, even if ‘science’ says otherwise, to conclude that biological systems are designed.

But IDers would argue that detecting intelligent causation (they don’t claim to actually detect God, or the agent itself) is at least as ‘scientific’ as many other so called ‘scientific endeavors.’   And that is why even if what I have said is valid, IDers shouldn’t drop their claims.



  1. “If there are other ways of learning important facts of reality than ’science’ then we might just be forced, even if ’science’ says otherwise, to conclude that biological systems are designed.”

    An interesting question is how we decide which ways of learning facts are acceptable. Are there criteria for acceptable ways of learning that both the naturalist and anti-naturalist will accept? If so, then they can try to persuade each other that science is the only way (naturalist) or that there are other ways (anti-naturalist). If they don’t agree on any criteria then there’s no basis for argument, in which case they have to live together, preferably peacefully, agreeing to disagree.


    Tom Clark, Director
    Center for Naturalism

    • Anthony on April 21, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I resonate with what you’re saying although I might want to clarify that an ‘anti-naturalist’ might not have any objections to the scientific method, which many of us believe is silent on the question- not because of a determination made by consent, but because of the nature of the process. Also, just to be clear, the anti-naturalist (if I understand you) is not saying that science is not a proper method for some areas of inquiry, just that it isn’t a proper method for ALL areas of inquiry.

    I do believe that there has to be a way forward on how to ‘live together.’ This might be generated by agreeing on acceptable criteria and that can only be generated by open, frank conversation… I think such a conversation is difficult to arrange. You will no doubt raise your own examples about the ‘anti-naturalist’ side, but with folks like Dawkins dismissing people who object to Darwinism by suggesting that they are stupid or wicked, that can’t help.

    And whatever ill thing the ‘anti-naturalist’ says, it is the case that they do not control the purse strings over public funds, and this is an unfair advantage in my view.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

2 + 2 =