Naturalism and fishing nets

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Photo: Damon Hart-Davis

Trying to argue with someone who is using circular reasoning can be very frustrating. Quite often, evangelical atheists will defend their philosophical naturalism by pointing to science. There is often a hidden assumption of Scientism too, whereby only empirical proof counts as something to be accepted (this is not dissimilar to the way in which “there is no evidence” generally means “there is no evidence which I find persuasive”). But there is a major problem in pointing to science in a defence of philosophical naturalism, and that is that it is rather circular. You see, one cannot use a methodology which has a particular working assumption and scope and then claim that this assumption and scope are therefore the limits of reality. The notable geneticist Francis Collins, in his book ‘The Language of God’ gives the following analogy, borrowed  from the renowned astrophysicist Arthur Eddington:

 

Science is not the only way of knowing… Scientists who deny this would be well advised to consider limits of their own tools… [Eddington] described a man who set about to study deep-sea life using a net that had a mesh size of three inches. After catching many wild and wonderful creatures from the depths, then concluded that there are no deep-sea fish that are smaller than three inches in length! If we are using the scientific net to catch our particular version of truth, we should not be surprised that it does not catch the evidence of the spirit.

It is at this point that a number of philosophical naturalist I’ve spoken with will try and dodge the point by not demanding scientific evidence, but ask that I show ‘some other’ method of ‘knowing’ – a rose by any other name? Apparently, it doesn’t have to be science, it just needs to do exactly what science does, which, as is rather obvious, is simply begging the question.

Nobel prize-winner Sir Peter Medawar, in his book ‘Advice to a young scientist’ writes:

There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and on his profession than roundly to declare- particularly when no declaration of any kind is called for-that science knows or soon will know the answers to all questions worth asking, and that the questions that do not admit a scientific answer are in some way nonquestions or “pseudoquestions” that only simpletons ask and only the gullible profess to be able to answer. …  Philosophically sophisticated people know that a ”scientific” attack upon religious belief is usually no less faulty than a defense of it. Scientists do not speak on religion from a privileged position

As Oxford mathemetician and philosopher of science, John Lennox, puts it:

The point is that in cases where science is not our source of information, we cannot automatically assume that reason has ceased to function and evidence has ceased to be relevant.

If the question is about meta-physics, then expecting physical evidence or evidence via a physical methodology is as circular as expecting to find two-inch fish with a three-inch net.

 

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12 Responses to Naturalism and fishing nets

  1. hoverfrog says:

    Science is a tool for understanding the natural world. It is our best method for answering questions about existence. When a claim is made it is through the methods of science that the veracity of that claim can be tested. There are other methods. There is intuition, there is superstition, there is faith. They are unreliable and of less value in an honest and reasoned analysis of evidence to discover the truth of a claim.

    May I suggest The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. It is an excellent book, clearly written and easily understandable that demonstrates quite thoroughly how science is our best and most appropriate tool for understanding reality.

    • AndrewFinden says:

      Science is a tool for understanding the natural world.

      Right. But that does not lead necessarily to:

      . It is our best method for answering questions about existence.

      It is our best method for answering questions about things that exist in the natural world. To simply assume that the natural world is thus the only kind of existence, to say what you did is a philosophical view.
      In fact you seem to have completely missed or ignored the point of Eddington's illustration by simply repeating the kind of axiom he is critiquing.

  2. hoverfrog says:

    Science is a tool for understanding the natural world.

    Right. But that does not lead necessarily to:

    . It is our best method for answering questions about existence.

    No, that is done by testing the various methods at our disposal.

    "To simply assume that the natural world is thus the only kind of existence, to say what you did is a philosophical view." Rather it is to say that we can see and test the natural world, we have evidence that it exists. The supernatural is your assumption. We have no evidence for it and not way to tell that it has simply not been imagined. It is meaningless.

    • AndrewFinden says:

      I'm not going to keep trying to show how you're arguing in a circle (simply repeating your axiom doesn't overcome the criticisms I made of it -criticisms that you seem to have simply ignored) . If you can't see it by now, then repeating myself is not going to help.

  3. Guest says:

    Why do you end up having this conversation?

    None of what you say is incorrect, but I wonder what claims you were making about the supernatural to have to point this out?

    • AndrewFinden says:

      Why do you end up having this conversation?

      Because I have a bad habit of getting into debates with philosophical naturalists and those who hold to Scientism :D

  4. Ben from Facebook says:

    Can you give us an example of a non-scientific methodology for acquiring knowledge.

  5. @askegg says:

    I can't help notice – you didn't actually answer the question.

  6. [...] religion are non-overlapping magisteria. Both tools are methods for discerning truth, and “expecting physical evidence or evidence via a physical methodology is as circular as expecting to fi…“. “Quite often, evangelical atheists will defend their philosophical naturalism by [...]

  7. [...] I posted a long over due response to Andrew Finden’s blog regarding the search for god, fish nets, and scientism. In the article I tried to outline the [...]

  8. [...] Skegg recently posted a reply to an older post of mine highlighting Eddington’s fishing-net analogy: Science is not the only way of knowing… Scientists who deny this would be well advised to [...]

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