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John Shook - Naturalism and the Scientific Outlook
Posted: 25 April 2008 07:29 PM   [ Ignore ]
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John Shook is Vice President for Research and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry Transnational in Amherst, N.Y. He received his PhD in philosophy at the University at Buffalo and was a professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University for six years. Among his current responsibilities are the Center for Inquiry’s Naturalism Research Project and the expansion of the Center’s Jo Ann Boydston Library of American Philosophical Naturalism.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Shook describes the relationship of naturalism to the worldview based upon the sciences. He explores whether the sciences necessarily lead to naturalism, and to what extent the sciences can yield truth about human morality and the good life. He details a recent debate he had with the famous Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, and responds to some of Craig’s challenges against naturalism and arguments in support of supernaturalism. And he examined what possible meaning (ultimate and otherwise) human life can have if there is no supernatural, “cosmic” significance.

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Posted: 28 April 2008 08:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Thomas Donnelly - 25 April 2008 07:29 PM

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Shook describes the relationship of naturalism to the worldview based upon the sciences.

I enjoyed this podcast and found it refreshing. I am not a philosopher and perhaps it’s covering ground that’s really dull to those well-read in this area. D.J. and John Shook helped clarify in my mind where science stands relative to religion.  To paraphrase what I got out of it—some people have a ‘worldview’ which includes both science and the supernatural—that is, they are able to compartmentalize things and be scientific about some things and superstitious about other things. Maybe everyone is a little that way. Anyway, the point is that “science” implies a methodology, not a philosophy, and “science” is one tool in the toolbox for understanding the universe and making sense of it all. But not the only tool.

But naturalism is a philosophy which says that science is it—with experience, reason, and science we can understand what there is to understand, and that there really is no place for superstition.  Everything has a natural explanation.  I found this helpful to distinguish the practice of science from a philosophy that the only explanations that count are those based on science, reason, and experience.

Pragmatic Naturalist (!) wrote a good,clear comment connecting this podcast with an interminable “ask a Christian” thread elsewhere in the forum. http://www.centerforinquiry.net/forums/viewthread/3827/P210/#37160
He is familiar with Shook and was also able transcribe some of the dialog.

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Posted: 29 April 2008 08:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I also enjoyed this discussion.  I particularly appreciated the point that since everyone except the splipsist agrees the natural world exists, while many debate the existence of the supernatural, and e ven those who believe it exists fight vehemently over their particular versions of it, the burden of proof is clearly on the supernaturalists to demonstrate their mythology describes something real. And the inability of science or reason to ever definitively disprove the existence of God, for example, is no evidence for its existence, especially since one can theroretically never definitively disprove the existence of anything, yet none of us really accept that all is possible and nothing is demonstrably false to any meaningful extent.

I did wonder if perhaps the relationship Shook describes between science and philosophical naturalism isn’t a bit circular. As I understood it, science is an epistemological methodology for investigating the natural world, and naturalism is the philosophical position that science, along with experience and reason, is all that is necessary to understand the natural world, with no recourse to the supernatural needed. Of course, I agree, but it seems a bit tautological, and this is a weakness supernaturalists could exploit. If both science and naturalism choose to confine their activities and interests to the natural world and ignore the supernatural, they how can they make and support claims about the supernatural? Am I missing something?

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Posted: 29 April 2008 09:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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mckenzievmd - 29 April 2008 08:43 AM

I did wonder if perhaps the relationship Shook describes between science and philosophical naturalism isn’t a bit circular. As I understood it, science is an epistemological methodology for investigating the natural world, and naturalism is the philosophical position that science, along with experience and reason, is all that is necessary to understand the natural world, with no recourse to the supernatural needed. Of course, I agree, but it seems a bit tautological, and this is a weakness supernaturalists could exploit. If both science and naturalism choose to confine their activities and interests to the natural world and ignore the supernatural, they how can they make and support claims about the supernatural? Am I missing something?

It’s a good question. I was wondering the same thing, and it depends what science investigates. I think if one begins by saying that science investigates “the natural world”, that is, as a definitional or a priori matter, then one gets into the sort of vicious circularity you suggest.

If, on the other hand, science investigates “reality” or “the world” (or all that can be investigated), this leaves open the possibility that science could also investigate the supernatural, were it to exist. And I think that this manner of speaking does more justice to what conventionally people mean to discuss when they discuss this thing called “the supernatural”. So, for example, people have proposed that ESP exists and can be tested; that telekinetic abilities exist and can be tested; that prayer can provably cure disease; etc. All of these things are proposed as potential proofs that there exist supernatural entities, powers or abilities. All of them have been tested and found wanting.

So, it is better to say that science investigates reality.

Interestingly, one can also say quite truthfully that science investigates the natural world (and only the natural world)—as an a posteriori claim. That is, that since all purported attempts to discover supernatural entities or powers have failed, therefore science only investigates natural entities. The corollary of this claim, of course, would be that we have no evidence of the supernatural.

Of course, there are also people who claim that the supernatural exists but cannot be tested, or cannot be tested scientifically. But that’s just a form of special pleading. As Victor Stenger says quite accurately, were scientific evidence suddenly to arise substantiating ESP or intercessionary prayer, these same people would not be discounting it as irrelevant. (Since purportedly the supernatural cannot be tested). Instead they would be accepting such evidence wholeheartedly. So the claim that the supernatural is not amenable to scientific scrutiny is simply a debating tactic and not, I think, an honest belief. At least not in the vast majority of cases.

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Posted: 29 April 2008 09:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I did enjoy the show but i found shook’s manner grated on occasion. He was somewhat condesending at times.

Ski.

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Posted: 30 April 2008 08:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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The statement that moral knowledge is testable caught my attention. Shook mentioned social sciences as an example. Certainly we have a large database of test cases (i.e., history texts), but each case had its own very unique universe in which it was played out. I’m not sure how we could take those cases and apply them generically to the world population. I sure would like to see it attempted, however. It would have to beat the hell out of today’s fickle politics!

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Posted: 30 April 2008 01:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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This was a fascinating ep, but I think Shook began to lose traction as he tried to articulate how he proposed to derive moral laws from nature (though I may have
gotten him wrong there) then popped a 180 and proposed some sort of syncretic ethics based on trying out (“testing”) the many moral codes of conduct that
have existed in the world. It almost sounded like he was proposing that we cherry-pick the best from moral system A, some from moral system B, etc etc,
throw it all in a mix-master, make sure that we scrape off any hint of the supernatural thinking that was the basis for most moral codes throughout history,
pour it into a large glass, garnish it with mint and a lemon wedge, and Voila! You’ve manufactured a “moral code” of sorts without any recourse to
supernaturalism. If this is what he was getting at—and it’s very possible that his writings have a degree of subtlety not present in his interview with DJ—
then this is a very dubious basis for constructing ethics and morality. The nature of a moral code is that it must be capable of commanding assent from
any rational agent who accepts the premises upon which that moral code is built. A syncretic “Best Of ....” construction, with no self-evident truth other than
“these bits of moral wisdom seem to have ‘worked’ at various times and in various societies”,  would be nothing more than a
disjointed collection of “suggestions”. Or was there something in there that I missed? It’s possible, I was grinding along on the dreadmill at the gym
when I was listening to the ep ... wink

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Posted: 30 April 2008 08:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I found the podcast to be refreshing too! It’s nice to be free of superstition and living in a naturalist state of mind. I was listening to the podcast on my iPod and reading “Sense and Goodness Without God”, simultaneously, which made for an invigorating bus ride.

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Posted: 01 May 2008 07:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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steveg144,
Good points. The podcast certainly did suggest a “mix-master” approach, but I think that was because the discussion came toward the end of the podcast and there was no time to specify. I have fantasized about governments being replaced by a sort of “world university” where the results of policies are evaluated by the various colleges within the university. Of course there are myriad problems of implementation, feedback and support, but that was what I thought of when Shook mentioned testable moral knowledge. And it was my reason for thinking it better than today’s fickle politics.

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Posted: 01 May 2008 09:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Yes, I think Shook probably had a more general point he wasn’t able to make clear. Effective moral principles have undoubtedly been discerned and implemented in many different cultures and eras, and there is much commonality among cultures in basic moral rules, likely due both to underlying biological predispositions and to the fact that some ideas simply work better than others. There is no new thing under the sun, as they say. I don’t think he meant to suggest a secular syncretism, where useful elements were plucked from various religions and cobbled together but washed clean of supernatural associations, which I think would be ineffective as well as artificial. More likely, he was indicating that basic moral principles common to many religious systems may be sound regardless of the supernaturalist justifications for them, and we can look at such princples somewhat empirically and choose those that seem effective based on our goals, rather than having to try and deduce a secular moral framework from first principles. I have some reservations about this approach, but it makes a kind of sense within the naturalist paradigm.

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Posted: 01 May 2008 04:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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A thing that leaves me uneasy about metaphysical naturalism is its forcefully conclusive nature.  It appears to permanently rule out any supernatural event.  Could it not better state: “We only see now what we see now, therefore what we may apprehend in the future could conceivably contradict the principle of naturalism, and give us reason to radically revise our world view.”

One could, perhaps with some difficulty, imagine some class of supernatural event being observed with a predictability akin to the predictability with which we see light or gravitational phenomena to occur.  Maybe then the dogmatic naturalist could always change the rules, and declare the previously regarded supernatural event as natural, by rewriting the theory of everything (in the future).  Is that in the rules I wonder.  Because if it is, naturalism would be under a severe attack.

Two possible examples would be
1)  a theoretical or observed variation in the natural laws of the universe whereby they are observed to be in certain cases, time and or position dependent.  This would have unforeseeable consequences for many scientific theories that are presently necessarily dependent on natural law invariance.
2)  irrefutable proof of say some particular paranormal phenomenon, say telekinesis.

So naturalism hangs together on the consistency of the physical world, whereas supernaturalism allows for the possibility of the universe’s physical laws to be bent or broken under some circumstance.

Is it not an act of faith to suppose that things will always be as before? is naturalism merely a way of stating that we do not observe discontinuity of the natural laws? and is supernaturalism at a minimum just an openness to the opposite possibility?  And if so does this not relegate naturalism to the level of belief system/religion?  Is the time frame of mankind’s powers of observation sufficiently reliable to rule out the paranormal/supernatural?

I guess that categorises me as a firm agnostic or gutless atheist depending on your point of view.  One thing I do know, is that I don’t know very much about anything, and like the vast majority of people, from the great to the small, will probably die in honest ignorance.
I’m worried that metaphysical naturalists are at base equally dogmatic as their opponents.

off to bed,
B9K9

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Posted: 01 May 2008 04:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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B9K9 - 01 May 2008 04:25 PM

Is it not an act of faith to suppose that things will always be as before?
B9K9

For that matter, “faith in reason” as the sole path to truth is itself, as the phrase implies, a form of faith. Nietzsche had
a lot to say about the idea that “faith in reason” (and “faith in truth”)  as valuable in itself has the potential to be problematic.
Mind you, I personally do have faith in reason and in truth, but I recognize that it’s not “given” that my faith is unproblematic.

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Posted: 01 May 2008 08:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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steveg144 - 01 May 2008 04:32 PM
B9K9 - 01 May 2008 04:25 PM

Is it not an act of faith to suppose that things will always be as before?
B9K9

For that matter, “faith in reason” as the sole path to truth is itself, as the phrase implies, a form of faith. Nietzsche had
a lot to say about the idea that “faith in reason” (and “faith in truth”)  as valuable in itself has the potential to be problematic.
Mind you, I personally do have faith in reason and in truth, but I recognize that it’s not “given” that my faith is unproblematic.

Well, ya’ll have hit on the problem of induction here (first officially formulated by David Hume).  That is, our inductive inferences depend upon the assumption that there is a uniformity of nature, i.e. that the future will resemble the past.  What is our justification for that assumption?  Well, that in the past the future has always resembled the past.  Of course this is reasoning in a circle, thus casting a skeptical cloud over all of our inductive reasonings.

But say you take that skepticism seriously, then what?  We can’t be justified that the next time we put our hand in fire it will burn us?  We can’t be justified that the sun will rise tomorrow?  We can’t be justified that when you drop a stone it will fall down rather than up, or that it will disappear or explode?  This is confusing justification with certainty.  It is wanting for induction what is only possible with deduction.  And it results in a skepticism run amok—or, to employ a Shook-ism, a “skepticism over the edge.”  The world is indeed constantly changing and at times unpredictable, but science—which, in part, employs inductive reasoning—is our best method for successfully navigating our way in a changing world.

The point is that one doesn’t need to have “faith” in that which has proven effective over and over and over—that is unless you confuse justification with certainty.  But then everything is a matter of faith, and “faith” becomes an empty term, equivalent to “going about your daily business”.  I prefer to use “faith” to refer to beliefs that are totally unjustified, rather than to refer to all beliefs not known with absolute deductive certainty.

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Posted: 01 May 2008 09:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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B9K9 - 01 May 2008 04:25 PM

A thing that leaves me uneasy about metaphysical naturalism is its forcefully conclusive nature.  It appears to permanently rule out any supernatural event.  ....

Two possible examples would be
1)  a theoretical or observed variation in the natural laws of the universe whereby they are observed to be in certain cases, time and or position dependent.  This would have unforeseeable consequences for many scientific theories that are presently necessarily dependent on natural law invariance.
2)  irrefutable proof of say some particular paranormal phenomenon, say telekinesis.

I think we get into a problem of semantics.  IF (2) {paranormal phenomenon} were shown to be real,  this doesn’t refute naturalism, anymore than certain things we know today were not known in the 19th century—but they are still real.  And in fact people have tried to test for paranormal phenomena scientifically.

The question of whether we are superstitious or whether there are actually supernatural phenonmena—it sure seems like the evidence lines up for superstitious

[ Edited: 02 May 2008 03:09 AM by Jackson ]
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Posted: 02 May 2008 01:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Pragmatic Naturalist - 01 May 2008 08:13 PM

The point is that one doesn’t need to have “faith” in that which has proven effective over and over and over—that is unless you confuse justification with certainty.  But then everything is a matter of faith, and “faith” becomes an empty term, equivalent to “going about your daily business”.  I prefer to use “faith” to refer to beliefs that are totally unjustified, rather than to refer to all beliefs not known with absolute deductive certainty.

Yeah, I agree that, to a large extent, we really are looking at a matter of defining one’s terms.  One valid definition of “faith” is the one you offer. Another might be the stronger definition that says that faith is anything that is not strong enough to command agreement by its self-evident validity and truth. This definition—and it can be a good one, if properly used—is the one that many religious people misuse in (usually fruitless) attempts to hoist secularists on our own petard. “Oh, your belief in science/evolution/etc is just as much a matter of ‘faith’ as our belief in God.”  Ironically enough, I blame a subset of the academic community for giving the fundies this wedge. With their insistence on absolute relativism, with their insistence that science is nothing more than “just another discourse of power,” they handed this(occasionally effective) argument to the fundies on a silver platter. These academics should have known better,

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Posted: 02 May 2008 06:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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b9k9 (cool moniker, btw),

I don’t see naturalism as forcefully conclusive - because that would bother me too! My interpretation is this: what some call “supernatural” events, naturalists call unknowns. So, naturalists do indeed say, “we see now what we see now.” Naturalists do not conclude that the unknowns are evidence of things supernatural. That inconclusive nature of naturalism appeals to me.

You mention “some class of supernatural event being observed with a predictability…” You then ask if it is “in the rules” to rewrite theories. Yes, the rules of nature are always open to revision.
Q: How does rewriting theory put naturalism “under a severe attack?” Correctly rewriting theories is one of a scientists favorite things.

You provide 2 examples. The first example has already taken place. Newtonian physics were modified by Einstein (and others). And you’re correct, it did/will have “unforeseeable consequences…” Your second example has been under examination by naturalists for quite some time. Every claim thus far has been proven to be a scam.

Finally, you worry that naturalists are equally dogmatic as their opponents. Dogma is the antichrist for naturalists. No k9ma allowed!

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