The missionary position

At Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne has tackled yet another foofaraw among philosophers; this particular topic is one of frequent appearance, being Does science assume naturalism? And ever so typical of philosophy, it begins with traditional assumptions and goes even further off course from there.

The duel comes over the various definitions of terms like naturalism and supernatural, expanded to more specific terms (because philosophers have fuck-all to do with their time) like methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism. These terms disguise the bare fact that naturalism is only a distinguished term because it arose from the assumption that the earth/universe was created; naturalism defined the bits that operated under simple unchanging laws, differentiated from those subject to the whims of some ultimate designer. Amusingly, the latter has never been demonstrated, and philosophy hasn’t reached an agreement yet on whether it even could be demonstrated – the properties remain speculative and ill-defined. Scientists, at least, correct themselves when they find they’ve started from an incorrect assumption; philosophers appear to resolutely ignore the error in favor of keeping their pet concepts. Everything is natural; we can find no evidence whatsoever of something supernatural, or unnatural, or mystical or capricious or absurd, nor any rational reason to believe such a thing exists.

Science proceeds (at a fantastic pace too) on the very simple premise that we need to measure an effect to have confidence in anything – there needs to be evidence. If there is no evidence for something, what use is it, how can it be defined, what differentiates it from fantasy or delusion? Anyone can play the speculation game, but it produces nothing of value to our body of knowledge until and unless it impinges on the physical world in some way. This, according to some, is what naturalism is; a certain number consider it a restricting, narrow worldview. A moment’s thought (dedicated to logical consequences rather than mental masturbation anyway) reveals that any worldview that incorporates non-evidenced, non-visible actions or effects is not dealing with any functionality or consequence, but only emotional desires – rank self-indulgence. It has nowhere to go, so any efforts in defining or even contemplating it can only be motivated by ego.

Thankfully, science remains largely free from that, and has little use for philosophy (cue the typical idiot that notes the word “philosophy” in PhD and uses this as their triumphant argument that science revolves around philosophy, blissfully unaware of the difference between Latin roots and modern-day functions.) As Coyne points out, there really are scientific studies into supernatural effect, such as intercessory prayer, based on the premise that if it has an effect, it’s measurable and thus fair game, and if it doesn’t, who gives a shit? It doesn’t really matter what pompous label someone with a philosophy degree wants to apply, or how many different versions they can produce. Cause and effect – that’s how it all works.

In such cases, I consider philosophers to be analogous with religious missionaries to remote tribes (and you can imagine how I feel about missionaries – it’s not a compliment, to be blunt.) Science functions just fine on its own, producing countless new bits of information every day, but this is far too annoying to at least some philosophers, who feel that science cannot proceed without recognizing the importance of philosophy, which hasn’t produced anything significant in its entire history and nothing remotely new for the past century or so. Descending on the tribe with ego and arrogance, these philosophers attempt to put it all right by telling scientists that no, what’s been working just fine isn’t what you should be thinking of, but instead, worship the real savior: vague abstracts based on false premises. Put down that optical device right now and embrace what I consider important, which is a collection of terms that we still argue the definition of after several hundred years. Can’t you see how this is so much better?!

It bears noting that Yonatan Fishman and Maarten Boudry, the writers of the paper Coyne has featured, actually recognize that science is not guided by or limited to any philosophical concept of naturalism, and argue this point against those in the same field who claim that science is restrictive. However, there’s a problem with this as well, since it’s not the ‘correct’ answer that provides the value, but the ability to arrive at it dependably and functionally – this is the type of exam where “show your work” is the pertinent part of the instructions. In the one paragraph abstract they use the phrase a priori three times (it is without question a big favorite in philosophy, as are just about all Latin phrases, because nothing says you’re smart like using words no one would dare utter in conversation.) A priori basically means assumption, referring to a view held without being established; theology perpetually promotes the idea of a creator a priori without ever having established that this is viable, much less likely. There is a certain irony in its usage in the paper, because it is referring to science adopting a naturalistic approach automatically, ruling out supernatural influences from the start. That the entire concepts of naturalism and supernaturalism, and all of the extended facets thereof, stem from a priori misunderstandings of both evidence and logic from philosophers remains lost. Imagine the time that could be saved if philosophers, instead of hurling the phrase around to make their writings look erudite, actually started applying the idea to their own work. Then again, they’d reduce their actual production by 95% and probably be out of a job, so maybe they’re not missing it after all – they’re just hoping everyone else does.

There’s another aspect of this that bears examining as well. There is no shortage of philosophers that offer their rulings on scientific endeavors, often in a pompous and superior way; the aforementioned paper is a response to one such instance. Yet, we know how much of philosophy is utter horseshit because of what science has established, mostly by not taking anyone’s word for anything and investigating things instead. Consciousness, and dualism, and free will, and of course naturalism (the philosophical versions of these, at least) have all been demonstrated to be nonsense by scientific examination – assumptions from ages long past that had never been rigorously tested, or even defined. Rather than trying to give science the guidance of their self-proclaimed superior intellect, many philosophers would gain a greater understanding of their own field by absorbing what science can tell them about their cherished concepts, and we might start seeing fewer lengthy exchanges over utter bilgewater. There are legitimate applications of philosophy guided by science – I play with it a lot here in this blog – and these stand a much better chance of actually providing some benefit to society or culture, but the first thing necessary is to drop the narcissistic devotion to the concepts that can’t stand up to scrutiny.

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