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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Methodological naturalism: If that's the way forward, ... let's go sideways

Having connected the dots of the vast conspiracy run by the Discovery Institute so as to include non-materialist neuroscience, Steven Novella goes on to cheerlead, for methodological naturalism - about which I will say only this:

Methodological naturalism is usually described as meaning that science can consider only natural causes. But by itself that doesn't mean anything because we don't know everything that is in nature. For example, if - as Rupert Sheldrake thinks - some animals can demonstrate telepathy, then telepathy is a natural cause. And so?

And so Richard Dawkins goes to a great deal of trouble to attempt to discredit Sheldrake because the hidden assumption is that nature mustn't include telepathy.

In practice, methodological naturalism frequently becomes a method of defending bad - and often ridiculously bad- ideas in order to save naturalism. Think of the persistent efforts to "prove" that humans don't "really" behave altruistically. In fact, we sometimes do. Here's a recent story, for example, about a Texas woman named Marilyn Mock who went to an auction of foreclosed homes, ran into Tracey Orr - an unemployed woman she had never met - who had come to endure the sale of her home, and ...
Orr couldn't hold it in. The tears flowed. She pointed to the auction brochure at a home that didn't have a picture. "That's my house," she said.

Within moments, the four-bedroom, two-bath home in Pottsboro, Texas, went up for sale. People up front began casting their bids. The home that Orr purchased in September 2004 was slipping away.

She stood and moved toward the crowd. Behind her, Mock got into the action.

"She didn't know I was doing it," Mock says. "I just kept asking her if [her home] was worth it, and she just kept crying. She probably thought I was crazy, 'Why does this woman keep asking me that?' "

Mock says she bought the home for about $30,000. That's when Mock did what most bidders at a foreclosure auction never do.

"She said, 'I did this for you. I'm doing this for you,' " Orr says. "When it was all done, I was just in shock."
But it was true. Mock bought the house for her and said she would accept as repayment only what Orr can afford. Why?
"If it was you, you'd want somebody to stop and help you."
Now, a "methodological naturalist" would

(1) try to find a chimpanzee who does something similar and make up a story that explains how that behaviour was naturally selected for in primates

or (since that might take a while)

(2) assign a selfish motive for Mock that is consistent with survival of the fittest.

One might at first be tempted to conclude that methodological naturalism is methodological idiocy. But no, let's look a bit more carefully. Notice what is not a permitted assumption: We can't assume that some people just think they should help others - even at considerable cost. In other words, the plain evidence of human behavior cannot be accepted at face value.

Now, there is nothing especially scientific about that belief. "Scientific" means "dealing with the evidence from nature," which includes a fair sprinkling of unselfish or not-very-selfish humans (as well as of the other type). Indeed, superior human intelligence probably explains the tendency to imagine another's feelings (= "If it was you, you'd want somebody to stop and help you"). So we can account scientifically for why humans can behave as Mock did.

The problem is that such an account, while useful, fails to support a key false belief underlying methodological naturalism: That humans are really the 98% chimpanzee and cannot in principle have motives absent in chimpanzees. Apart from that false belief, no one would bother trying to find an exotic explanation for Mock's behaviour.

The principle role that methodological naturalism plays right now is to enable false beliefs to pose as science and to prevent them being discredited by evidence.

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