November 1, 2010

Can science investigate the supernatural?

Good discussion going on about whether or not science can investigate the supernatural.

Occasional Sentient Developments blogger Russell Blackford stirred the pot with his article, Boudry, Blancke, and Braeckman on methodological naturalism:
Of course, science cannot investigate the supernatural if we define "the supernatural" as "whatever cannot be investigated by science"! But once we define the supernatural in some other plausible way it is by no means apparent that science can't investigate it, just as it can investigate things that no longer exist (such as dinosaurs), things that are very distant (such as the moons of Jupiter), and things that are very small (such as atomic nuclei). None of the latter can be perceived directly with our senses, but they can interact with our senses in other ways - by leaving traces on the world that we can perceive, by interacting with scientific instruments to create images that we can perceive, by affecting experimental apparatus in predictable ways, and so on. In the end, we can use distinctively scientific means to investigate many things that interact with our senses only indirectly. Depending on the situtation, we can sometimes establish a lot about those things. We do, in fact, know a lot about the moons of Jupiter, dinosaurs, and atomic nuclei, even though none of these things have ever been directly observed with our senses (the moons of Jupiter have been observed via scientific instruments such as telescopes, and we have various reasons to think that these are reliable, but they have not been observed by unaugmented human eyes).
Blackford's article was followed by Christopher Schoen who asks, Is "dark matter" supernatural?:
At issue is the oldish question of whether science can probe into "supernatural" questions, the most famous of which is "Does God exist?" Traditionally, the question hangs on the distinction between two kinds of naturalism: methodological naturalism, which excludes supernatural phenomena as out-of-scope, (whether or not they actually exist), and philosophical naturalism, which assumes a priori that supernatural phenomena do not exist.

A number of scientists and philosophers are dissatisfied with these two options, since neither seems to permit the testing of the "God Hypothesis." The solution to this that both Russell and Jerry point to is presented in a new paper in Foundations of Science which proposes to further split Methodolological Naturalism into two more categories: Intrinsic Methodolological Naturalism (IMN) and Provisional Methodolological Naturalism (PMN). IMN is the old way of doing things; PMN the new, improved way, allowing for scientific study of supernatural phenomena, should they happen to pop up unexpectedly in the course of our research.

Nowhere do the authors of the paper define just what supernaturalism is supposed to mean. The word is commonly used to indicate that which is not subject to "natural" law, that which is intrinsically concealed from our view, which is not orderly and regular, or otherwise not amenable to observation and quantification. That right there should be a conversation-stopper, since these are science's stock and trade, and we've seemed to stumble on a simple logical end to the problem.
Also check out contributions to this discussion by Jerry CoyneJohn Pieret, and Massimo Pigliucci and the Cosmic Variance blog. And of course the article that started it all, the paper by Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, and Johan Braeckman.


gregory said...

Oh, god, academics .... Ask any yogi, mystic, psychic, you will get a much-improved discusion.

Unknown said...

"Nowhere do the authors of the paper define just what supernaturalism is supposed to mean."

Well, then, this "thing" is really difficult to handle ;-)

"The word is commonly used to indicate that which is not subject to "natural" law ..."

The situation is probably not like Boudry, Blancke, and Braeckman think it is.

Theory of science ahead -- and, Gregory, this is the down to earth version.

My point of view -- and I'm not alone, and I haven't invented this -- is, that the laws of physics (I feel free to take these) are not "out there in nature" (like stones, flowers, animals and stars), they are not "discovered", and we do not get better and better "approximations" of the "real" laws.

Instead of this, physics -- generally science -- is a human artefact, a social phenomenon, and nowadays a gigantic project, in the process of which we *invent* physical laws, systematically contrast them with experimental data, and use them until they are falsified. I should note, that I did not say that science is *only* this.

If someone want's to believe, that the laws of physics "exist" "out there" -- that's okay. The science of physics, its applications in engineering, our whole life and all this, would be the same and would work the same way. The additional assumption makes no difference, it is unnecessary -- except, if it makes you happy (or what else), go on with it.

Now, against this background, a simple -- and for some people disappointing -- definition could be: We call those phenomena supernatural, for the explanation of which we have not been able to invent scientific theories. And this is different from "not being subject to natural law".

Maarten Boudry said...

"Nowhere do the authors of the paper define just what supernaturalism is supposed to mean. "

Schoen apparently hasn't even read the paper. There is a discussion taking up almost two pages on the definition of "supernatural", right at the beginning of the paper. Of course you can disagree with the definition, but you can't just say there isn't any to be found. From the paper:

"In accordance with our reconstruction of MN as an empirically grounded and provisory
methodological guideline of science (PMN), we propose to define ‘supernatural’ as referring
to any phenomenon which has its basis in entities and processes that transcend the
spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy described by modern science (for a
similar approach, see Stenger 2008, pp. 14–16). In contrast with the foregoing analytical take
on the issue, if any such supernatural force were to intervene in our material universe (and of
course these are the cases of particular terrestrial interest) we still want to term it ‘supernatural’
here.8 As we will see, this definition is closer to the IDC’s conception of supernatural
agency, and it is more relevant to the discussion of MN."

Unknown said...

Maarten Boudry, thank you for pointing at this. Interesting!

As you may understand, your definition doesn't satisfy me.

My down to earth, non-lunatic, ad hoc definition of "supernatural" implies, that supernatural events are *not* *necessarily* beyond the reach of science; corollary: it's always an open question.

Of course, I do not agree with defining "‘supernatural’ as any phenomenon that is inaccessible by scientific means in principle." And I would not say that this is *the* "philosophical way to vindicate" whatever, but possibly *one* way among others.

Anyway, I'm with you, saying "naturalists do not need to resort to the claim that scientific evidence for anything supernatural is logically or conceptually impossible, and in any case it is imprudent to do so." But for me the situation is rather simple.

NextLevelHuman said...

Science is already investigating the supernatural, as with Princeton universities "Pear" project:
And investigating premonitions:

The issue is not weather science can investigate paranormal, but can the science community at arge accept the findings. For research to be out there and peer reviewed and duplicated, it needs to be reported in scientific journals, which it is not due to prejudice.

We don't hear much about this in the media because of the prejudice of old-school science to what has for so long been in the realm of the supernatural.

As one scientist commented, "even if it were true, I wouldn't believe it" [The PEAR Proposition, DVD, see the Princeton site].
William Henderson