Methodological naturalism

Let’s be clear…. we’re all scientists. Yes, even the most hardened, dyed in the wool fanatical theist, the ardent supernaturalist and even the creationist. We all rely upon science every day.
I don’t just mean that we use the obvious technology that science provides such as computers, wristwatches and washing machines. I’m not even going to witter on about the less obvious benefits of science such as plastics and wallpaper paste. These are valid points but the argument, often put to anti-science proponents using the internet, is a little tired these days. I for one have grown tired of pointing out the obvious irony when conversing with creationists, astrologers and alternative therapists etc over electronic social media. Rather I want to talk about everyday assumptions that everyone makes – the beliefs we all must hold if we are to survive in the real world.

The uniformity of nature

Science is a process, not a belief system. It’s a way of exploring the natural observable world by testing explanations of observable events (hypotheses) to see if they can predict what will happen next. The process is remarkably effective (hence the many advances we all rely upon) but only because of science’s underlying assumption:

Nature is predictable and uniform because it operates according to fixed, natural laws.

So the Christian who sees that it’s raining puts on a coat because the predictability, the uniformity of nature means that they will get wet if they don’t. The faith healer sticks to the path at the clifftop because they understand the phenomenon of gravity – and they understand it not because of spiritual enlightenment but because of prior observation of the natural world. In short they keep themselves safe because they use the scientific method. They rely upon the uniformity of nature and the predictable ’cause and effect’ of observed events to make sense of the world and to stay safe. So far so good. We all ‘do science’ when it suits our purposes. I imagine that there’s nothing particularly controversial about that.

But consider the implications of these natural laws. We know that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. That’s the science of space travel. It’s also the science of swimming and of billiards. The natural law is constant (with a few exceptions in specific, equally predictable, non-Newtonian, non-Euclidian contexts that we don’t need to worry about here). What then of divine intervention? What of miracles?

If nature is predictable then there is no place for divine intervention. There is no point then in prayer – it cannot make a difference anyway. Scientists are more than capable of explaining natural events precisely because the natural world is predictable. They can predict the impact of gravity and the wetness of rain precisely because nature is uniform and predictable (and so can we).

When a light bulb expires the theist doesn’t waste time praying for light – they replace the bulb. When the religious fanatic is frightened and alone in the dark they don’t pray for dawn (that would violate natural laws) – they pray that they’ll make it UNTIL dawn. They understand the scientific concepts of heliocentric theory that makes an early dawn impossible, so they don’t pray for it. The thought never even occurs to ask their God for an impossible miracle. So much for the omnipotence of God. So much for the magic of metaphysics.

Until you stop replacing light bulbs and pray for light instead, you’re a scientist. And once you accept the uniformity of nature in one context you undermine the whole idea of divine intervention. From light bulbs to geology, from medicine to evolution the uniformity of nature is constant. And acceptance of that uniformity leaves no place for miracles or for prayer.

So what’s it to be? Will you pray for healing or accept the antibiotics? Will you call the mechanic or simply ask your omnipotent God to fix the cylinder head gasket? If the Dr., the mechanic, the builder or even the baker has any place in your life then you really can’t deny scientific method. Nature is uniform and prayer is necessarily meaningless as a result.

But don’t just take my word for it. Ask God to suspend gravity and try a different route down from the clifftop. You never know – it might work.

How we know what to rely upon

Lots of people seem to be very confused about the nature of evidence and the meanings of terms such as ‘theory’, ‘hypothesis’, ‘science’ and ‘nonsense’. So I’ve put together a little table that I hope will be helpful. It might clear up a few misunderstandings.

For example the phrase ‘only a theory’ doesn’t mean it’s not reliable. In fact, in the case of very strong theories such as the theories of evolution or gravity it’s as close to fact as cautious, scientific convention will allow. Creationists beware – you have no idea how silly you appear when you use that particular phrase to try to knock down Darwinian evolution.

I’ve made some amendments to the table below. This is because some people have challenged the ranking of the examples I used in the original. Since the point of this post is to outline the hierarchy itself I’m quite happy to use different illustrations. I may yet make further amendments in the light of scientific evidence for reincarnation which I have been promised and am hoping will actually materialise. Incidentally that’s the main advantage of scientific thinking methods over ‘Just so’ stories like creationism. Scientific thinking involves accepting when the evidence demonstrates that we have been wrong and changing our minds accordingly. That’s why scientific understanding moves on whereas creationism (for example) is essentially making the same, tired arguments that the Rev. William Paley first came up with 200 years ago.

Anyway – I hope this table helps clear up some issues for the hard-of-understanding among us.

If your browser only displays half the table just double click it to see the whole thing.

Evidence hierarchy 2

Hard wired 4: The naturalistic fallacy

The Western world is awash with people claiming that their product or service is ‘healthy’ because it’s ‘natural’. From beauty and skin care products to healthy eating and a range of alternative therapies we are sold the message that natural is somehow ‘better’. Often these advertisements are dressed up in ‘sciencey’ language to add credibility but still the basic message is that natural is best. More significantly for this post the idea is that ‘natural’ is the same as ‘how it ought to be’.

This idea that ‘natural’ is the same as ‘ought to be’ is the essence of the naturalistic fallacy. It has dogged our understanding of the world and spawned entire political movements simply because people haven’t quite grasped the simple truth that describing something isn’t the same as supporting it.

Of course natural isn’t necessarily best at all. It’s not that simple. There are many natural poisons and a number of naturally occurring bacteria that will happily kill you given half a chance. There is much more to the equation than that. But that’s only one part of the naturalistic fallacy. The really dangerous one is the idea that natural shows us how things should be – that it can inform our ideologies.

That’s the fallacy that has created the biggest problems in our society.

Origin of species 1In the context of evolution let’s consider Social Darwinism – a bastardisation of Darwin’s theory of ‘Evolution by means of natural selection’ that brought nothing but confusion, misery and death to mankind.

Charles Darwin brought us the theory of evolution in the mid nineteenth century and demonstrated how via the mechanism of survival of the fittest our species (along with every other modern species) evolved and outlived weaker competitors over unimaginably long periods of time. That’s why human beings exist at all – because the Australopithecines were good at escaping from predators and because Homo habilis learned how to be a little more creative than the next guy.

But Darwin didn’t make any sort of moral or ethical judgement about natural selection and the survival of the fittest. He merely described the reality. Nature doesn’t care about our sensibilities. It doesn’t care about anything. Nature just is. Natural selection doesn’t give two hoots about our happiness either – it can’t – it’s an unconscious, inanimate process that has nothing to do with right and wrong, individual contentment or anything else except getting genetic material (DNA) into the next generation.

It’s true that evolution by natural selection has a great deal to do with our sense of morality (as we shall see later) but that most certainly doesn’t mean that our morality is particularly moral. In fact – in many instances it’s easy to see how, from a moral perspective, human evolution has left us sadly lacking. There is no benefit at all in assuming that the way we evolved in the ‘Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation’ (EEA) or ‘Ancestral Environment’ for short will be effective or even desirable today.

Eugenics posterWhen we follow the evidence of natural history we can understand what has happened and even how it happened but we cannot draw any conclusions about what ought to happen. We particularly can’t use nature as a justification for what we’d like to do next. And yet that is precisely what the social Darwinists did. They took the knowledge of natural history and natural selection and confused it with the ideal of creating a master race. In its most extreme form it spawned the eugenics movement and inspired much of the thinking behind the holocaust in World War 2. And yet it is profoundly ill-informed and ridiculous.

Just because something is a particular way does not mean that it ought to be that way.

The naturalistic fallacy confuses reality with ideology and the results are not only foolish – they’re also extremely dangerous. The idea that if it’s natural it’s also how it ought to be has been used as a justification for social Darwinism and also by creationists to oppose evolution:

“It can’t be right if it’s not what God said!”

Both of these ridiculous assumptions are as bad as each other. They’re two sides of the same coin. Just as we can’t use the naturalistic fallacy to decide upon right action we can’t use ‘The Agency Fallacy’ either. Substitute the term ‘Natural selection’ for ‘God’ in any statement about how things ought to be and you have an equally silly proposition. In each case you have rules (conscious or unconscious) that suited a different time, place and culture but that have little or no real relevance here and now.

Evolution by natural selection is the mechanism that brought us to where we are now. But it has nothing to do with right and wrong and it has nothing to do with God or Gods (except that it can explain how we evolved the tendency to believe in Gods in the first place).

Of course many people will disagree vehemently with this assertion and in fairness, there’s no reason why they should believe me just because I said so. The next post will outline the evidence for evolution by natural selection, building upon the idea of ‘falsifiability’ described in part 2.

Hard wired 2: How we know what we know

Charles DarwinIn many ways this chapter may be the hardest for me to write. That’s not because evolution is particularly complicated but because it’s so obvious. At least it is to me. But it wasn’t always like this. There was a time when I really struggled with the whole concept of evolution. Again, that wasn’t because it’s complicated – it was because I really didn’t want it to be true.

However, regardless of what I wanted to believe all those years ago, evolution is true – it is a fact as indisputable as gravity or heliocentric theory (the notion that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa). In fact we have more evidence for the fact of evolution than we have for the theory of gravity, heliocentric theory, or even most of what we think we know about quantum mechanics.

So why did I once find it so difficult to accept evolution? The answer to that is both simple and complicated….

I found evolution to be challenging because I was a fundamentalist, creationist Christian – a ‘young earth’ creationist at that and evolution contradicts most of what I chose to believe. That’s the simple part.

I was a fundamentalist, creationist Christian for a variety of reasons, mainly social and based upon a need to ‘belong’. That’s the complicated part.

I’m aware that some readers of this blog – some of whom are good friends of mine will find these concepts just as challenging as I once did. To those people I say this…..

I have no wish to attack you and nothing that follows is intended to offend anyone. However, this information is based upon the best available evidence, at least the best evidence available to me – evidence which I will try to introduce as this series progresses.

But first we need to say a little about the nature of evidence, how we know what is true (or at least how we make our best guesses) and how we know when something is likely to be false. This will involve a little detour before we begin talking properly about evolution and evolutionary psychology – bear with me.

Science 1By far the easiest way to test whether something is true is to see if it can predict what we might find in the real world. That’s why scientists come up with hypotheses (possible explanations for stuff) and then devise tests to see if what really happens is what we would expect according to the hypothesis. Hypothesis really means ‘an explanation with little or no supporting evidence’. The more tests the hypothesis passes the more evidence it acquires to support it until eventually it moves beyond the status of hypothesis and becomes a ‘theory’.

Hypotheses with loads and loads of supporting evidence are still technically just theories although in common language they become known as facts. That’s the situation with the theory of evolution. It’s still a theory because in science everything is only a theory – an explanation that is supported by evidence – but nothing is a fact because there’s always the chance that new evidence might arise to disprove it. In fact the bulk of scientific testing is designed to try to find conflicting evidence, to disprove theories. If no evidence can be found then the theory is accepted provisionally. But the moment evidence is found that proves it cannot be true the theory is abandoned. That’s how science works. The process of trying to find evidence to disprove a theory is known as ‘falsification’. Remember that term – it’s really important. Falsification.

It’s a bit of a paradox but we can only really know what’s true by trying to disprove stuff – trying to prove our theories are correct doesn’t work. Here’s why…

Let’s assume that I have a hypothesis – I suspect that all mammals live on the land and so I set out to prove it. I go to the internet (doesn’t everyone use the internet these days?) and I type into a search engine ‘land-dwelling mammals’. Instantly I’ll find loads of evidence confirming what I already thought and I’ll be more convinced than ever that my hypothesis is correct. I’ll elevate my hypothesis to a theory because I have the evidence to support it – even to ‘prove’ it but I’ll be wrong.

Dolphin 1Had I typed a different search term into my computer I’d have come up with a completely different result. If I’d looked for the evidence against my hypothesis instead of just trying to confirm it I’d have a much better way to test it. What would happen if I searched for ‘sea-dwelling mammals’?

Instantly I’d have been confronted with images of whales and dolphins and my hypothesis would crumble before my eyes. I’d know that my hypothesis was incorrect and I’d have to modify it. I’d eventually end up, as most people already know, with a hypothesis that ‘most’ mammals live on land but that there are a few exceptions. Such is the power of ‘falsification’.

This idea is so powerful that a famous philosopher of science called ‘Karl Popper’ suggested that falsification is the key condition when trying to solve what he called the ‘demarcation problem’ – the difference between ‘science’ and ‘psuedoscience’ or even ‘science’ and ‘nonsense’.

‘Psuedoscience’ and ‘nonsense’ seek only to prove their claims whilst ‘science’ seeks to disprove hypotheses and theories – it seeks to ‘falsify’ claims.

That’s why scientific ideas progress. As each hypothesis or theory is disproven, scientists modify their beliefs and retest, all the time coming closer and closer to reliable truth. Psuedoscientists and nonsense merchants do the opposite – they seek only to find evidence that supports their existing beliefs and ignore or suppress ideas that contradict them. This process of looking only for supporting evidence is what researchers call ‘confirmation bias’, a tendency that scientists work hard to ‘factor out’ of their research methodologies. The confirmation bias lulls us into a false sense of security, even a false sense of competence – we believe that we were right all along and so we don’t ever try to improve upon our existing beliefs.

That’s why creationism hasn’t really changed for thousands of years whereas the theory of evolution keeps getting more and more refined and so more and more reliable. It’s because of this process of falsification. The attempts to falsify evolutionary theory mean that the overall picture is continually refined. We now talk about the ‘modern synthesis’ of evolution – a significant improvement upon Darwin’s original idea which, however brilliant it was (and make no mistake Darwin’s theory was brilliant) was incomplete. Modern theories are also incomplete but they’re getting better and better with every research study. So much so that although some of the fine details are still being refined we now have more than enough evidence to talk about the ‘fact’ of evolution in all but the very strictest, scientific terms where ‘theory’ is as certain as one can ever be.

That’s because, if it wasn’t true, evolution would be easy to falsify. The esteemed English biologist JBS Haldane, when asked what discovery would falsify evolution retorted:

“Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian”

That’s because, according to the theory of evolution (and it is a theory – it’s not just a hypothesis) rabbits didn’t evolve until well after the Precambrian era (around 500 million years ago) so fossil rabbits in those early geological layers would pretty much discredit all (or at least most) of evolutionary theory. In fact, almost any ‘out of time’ fossils would be a major problem for evolution and a number of organisations have dedicated themselves to trying to find such an anomaly – so far without success.

Remember the principle of falsification – the more you try and fail to falsify a concept the more reliable it becomes.

Contrast this with the idea of creation by intelligent design (the latest incarnation of creationism). It’s hard to think of a single piece of evidence that would falsify creationism because whatever evidence we throw at the problem the creationist will simply say that God designed it that way. Creationism is ultimately unfalsifiable (at least by its own standards) and therefore it’s impossible to prove as well. It’s a perfect example of what Karl Popper would describe as ‘nonsense’ or, in its latest form of ‘intelligent design’ (ID for short), ‘psuedoscience’.

You see the evidence is the thing – that and the lack of sought after falsification. That’s how we know what we know and also why we don’t have to base our beliefs on the origin myths of a handful of middle-Eastern desert nomads who lived several thousand years ago and knew nothing more about genuine scientific inquiry than their ancient Egyptian counterparts who worshipped Osiris and Ra.

The image below is a late addition to this blog, having actually been created for a different post in September 2014. However, it fits here very nicely as well.


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