Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Prospects for a Theistic Science:
Part II of a rebuttal of Robert Pennock

(Continuation of Part I, against Pennock's paper Supernaturalist Explanations and the Prospects for a Theistic Science)

Pennock claims that The appeal to supernatural forces, whether divine or occult, is always available because we can cite no necessary constraints upon the powers of supernatural agents.

This appeal is only available to those who claim that non-natural agents act only arbitrarily and capriciously. But Divine, spiritual and/or mental agents only appear as arbitrary and capricious to those who fail to understand their principles and logic. In themselves, for example us as human minds, there are regular principles which regulate our action. Of course, such agents can change their minds without telling others, but theistic science begins with the principles that God is a good Love, so the underlying Divine and spiritual agents only change their minds when there are good reasons to do so. Only if we do not understand the meaning of 'good love' and 'good reasons' will those actions appear to be arbitrary and capricious.

These 'constraints upon the powers of supernatural agents' are not necessary, in the sense of being logically necessary. But they are necessary in another sense, namely given the nature of the Divine God which, by theism, creates, sustains and (where possible) dwells in all of creation. Only someone who has denied the possibility of theistic science already would claim that nothing non-natural can follow such regulating principles.

Finally, Pennock says, if we were to allow science to appeal to supernatural powers even though they could not be tested, then the scientist's task would become just too easy. One would always be able to call upon the gods for quick theoretical assistance in any circumstance.

The method in theistic science will not be to 'appeal' to supernatural powers to explain problems in the theory, but to only allow those influences of non-natural agents that follow from the structure and powers of those agents. It is up to the proposer to show that the alleged influences do follow, and never to merely assert without evidence.

I admit that gathering evidence concerning non-natural agents, apart from those that are our own minds, is not an easy task. This is partly because, without having yet a clearly formulated theory of minds and souls, it is very difficult to collect evidence for what particular minds and souls might be doing on any particular situation. It is general feature of science that very often the evidence and the theories are linked, so that one only makes sense once we have some idea of the other.

Without the binding assumption of uninterruptible natural law there would be absolute chaos in the scientific worldview. Supernatural explanations undermine the discipline that allows science to make progress. It is not that supernatural agents and powers could not explain in principle, it is rather that they can explain all too easily.

Non-natural agents explain 'all too easily' only when we have no good theory about what those agents actually are, what they do, and what are the principles that guide their operations. The worrisome claim here of 'absolute chaos' betrays more an irrational fear of the unknown, and of losing one's sense of importance in existing professional expertise. It should be clear that existing sciences will not be immediately rendered redundant by the existence of theistic and mental sciences, though it will be revised in many places.

Pennock does consider the possibility of Super Natural Explanations, which is To say that science doesn't deal with "the supernatural" does not mean that everything that we currently think of as supernatural--ghosts and extra-sensory perception, for example--really is. Perhaps these are actually natural law-governed phenomena that are yet to be discovered. ... In Star Trek, for example, we may have that departed "souls" turn out to be "coherent energy patterns."

Here, Pennock is repeating the error we saw previously: of equating "natural" with "law-governed". He refuses to entertain the possibility of anything "non-natural" being law-governed: exactly the possibility which is the foundation of theistic science. He claims that If there are other sorts of "laws" that govern that world, then they can be nothing like those that we understand, but this is to excessively underestimate human powers of comprehension. If we do have non-natural minds and souls (as theistic science contends), then even from an evolutionary point of view we would survive better if we had the capacity to understand what these are! Maybe we only find the necessary comprehension after being instructed by God, and if we have been told many times, we have few excuses for not understanding.

He recognises that By discussing the confirmation of "ghosts" in this way (as "coherent energy patterns") we have tacitly taken them out of the supernatural realm and placed them squarely in the natural world. To conceive of ghosts as supernatural entities is to consider them to be outside of the natural realm, outside the law-governed world of cause and effect physics. But to say that science could test and confirm their existence, as in our hypothetical case, is to reconceive them as natural entities. Perhaps there really are "coherent energy patterns" as postulated in the story, but such "ghosts" are no longer supernatural--they have been naturalized. Surely the Christian will quite properly object that, whatever these things are, they are surely not departed souls in the religious sense of the term.

Here, Pennock admits that treating "ghosts" as "coherent energy patterns" means that they are not mental and/or spiritual, for he knows that is what the religious are talking about.

But consider the possibility that souls or minds are discovered, and are found that they do have an influence on the world, and that they are constituted from forms of love, and have the ability to produce perceptions and thoughts in law-like manners (as theistic science will postulate). What would he imagine happen in a Star Trek episode if this were to occur? What would Kirk and Spock think if such souls proved immune to any damage from physical weapons? Would they necessarily think 'energy, but not as we know it?', or would they admit to something non-physical? Would Pennock necessarily insist that even these minds, being law-like, automatically become 'reconceived as natural entities'? They would be nothing like the natural entities known to physics: not 'physical' in any normal sense of the term!

The conflict that arises here is the classic dilemma in defining physicalism / naturalism. Does it assert that nature consists of everything that science knows now, or of everything that science will postulate in the future? If the former, then it is almost certainly wrong, since science will evolve and will postulate new things. If the later, then the claim of physicalism now is without content, since we do not know where science will proceed in the future! For more discussion of this last dilemma, see for example Dan Synnestvedt's article on naturalism.

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