Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?

By Mathew Goldstein

The notion that supernatural phenomena are fundamentally beyond the scope of scientific examination is promoted by prominent scientific institutions, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The court ruling in the United States against the teaching of "Intelligent Design" (ID) as an alternative to evolution in biology classes (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District; Jones, 2005) was partially justified on the grounds that claims involving supernatural phenomena are outside the proper domain of scientific investigation.

A few other examples of this commonly asserted denial that science has anything to say about supernatural claims follow.

The booklet "Science, Evolution, and Creationism" from the National Academies Press says this:

Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.

A statement by the National Science Teachers Association:

Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance. . . as noted in the National Science Education Standards, “Explanations on how the natural world changed based on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, mystical inspiration, superstition, or authority may be personally useful and socially relevant, but they are not scientific.”

A statement by the National Association of Biology Teachers:

Explanations employing nonnaturalistic or supernatural events, whether or not explicit reference is made to a supernatural being, are outside the realm of science and not part of a valid science curriculum. Evolutionary theory, indeed all of science, is necessarily silent on religion and neither refutes nor supports the existence of a deity or deities.

They are all mistaken. Science does not presuppose Naturalism and supernatural claims are amenable in principle to scientific evaluation. Here is an article on this topic by Yonatan I. Fishman, published in 2007 in the Science & Education, titled Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews? His article explains that "whether the entities or phenomena posited by claim X are defined as ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’ is irrelevant to the scientific status of the claim. If the fundamental aim of science is the pursuit of truth - to uncover, to the extent that humans are capable, the nature of reality - then science should go wherever the evidence leads. If the evidence were to strongly suggest the existence of supernatural phenomena, then so be it."

Yonatan Fishman concludes thusly: "Importantly, critical thinking and a scientific approach to claims are not just for scientists and debunkers of the supernatural. A well-informed population proficient in critical thinking will be better equipped to make intelligent decisions concerning crucial political issues of our day, such as global warming and governmental foreign policy. Indeed, an intellectually honest engagement with reality is a prerequisite for promoting the long-term interest of individuals and society at large." I recommend this article.

Why do so many groups and individuals, including institutions that advocate on behalf of educators and scientists, mistakenly deny that our modern knowledge can be biased (and in fact is biased) vis-a-vis various theisms? We can assume they are issuing these denials out of fear of offending religious people. These false assertions are counter-productive because they attack and undermine the very goal of critical thinking that these same institutions claim to be defending. This counter-productive appeasement of religious beliefs at the expense of truth by institutions representing educators and scientists needs to stop. When speaking the truth is inconvenient because the audience is intolerant or otherwise prejudiced against the truth, there is always the option of keeping silent. How about more silence here?


Hos said...

The accomodationist claim is absurd. As long as religions make claims about the natural world, they are subject to same rules of evidence as all other claims. Suppose, for example, that in Jerusalem they found the fossil of a horse with wings. Would muslims hesitate a moment to claim this "proved" prophet Mohammad's ascension story? Amusingly they never hesitate to use evidence when they think they have any, but when they don't, it is "science cannot examine the supranatural".

Gary Berg-Cross said...

There have been scientific tests of the efficacy of prayer going back to the late 19th century. As you can imagine the results were negative.
A recent one was a large study (1,800 patients at six medical centers) that had Christians pray for heart-surgery patients and looked at post-operative complications. 3 groups - those who knew they were being prayed for, those who were prayed
for but only knew it was a possibility, and those who weren't prayed for but were told it was a possibility.
Results showed no effect of prayer on complication-free recovery.

BTW the study was financed by the Templeton Foundation.

One article on this had the headline "Power of prayer flunks an unusual test."