Sal’s recent OP about setting up a YC discussion blog got me thinking about the influence and role that philosophical presuppositions play in how one views science and scientific findings, or even in how one defines what science is. As I follow discussion after discussion on various blogsites regarding YEC v OEC v Naturalism, it becomes more and more clear that ones philosophical, theological or metaphysical presuppositions about the world play a very large and defining role is how one arrives at any conclusions about these matters, or even how one views evidence for or against these views. Unfortunately, it also seems to be the case that few will admit to these presuppositions, and try to make the case that they derive their position “purely” from the science itself. However, it doesn’t seem to me that a good case can be made for that position.
If one begins with philosophical naturalism, then the cosmos has to be billions of years old, because its really the only game in town. Hence, it seems, that no amount of data or observation will ever be taken as evidence for a contrary position, namely that the cosmos and everything in it are quite young. The statement so often seen that there is “no evidence” for the cosmos being young, is really not as strong as it might seem at first glance. Such statements as “no evidence” for ID or YEC or [fill in the blank] really mean that the observer doesn’t take any data or observation to be evidence for any of those things, which is a very different position from there being “no evidence” at all. Put differently, the connection between data and observation to a particular hypothesis, theory or explanation is greatly dependent on other background considerations that one holds as being true a priori. If one presupposes, for example, that Nature (here meaning the cosmos and everything in it), is a completely closed system of natural cause and effect, then there’s little hope that any connection between data and observation will ever be accepted as supportive of, say, actual intelligent design.
In his book Science and Its Limits, philosopher of science Del Ratzsch uses an example that runs like this. Suppose its a bit before 1900 and I come to you and say, I think atoms are mutable: they can be either split apart or mashed together. Supposing you to be a fellow physicist, you’d probably laugh and say, “how can you say such a thing, there is no evidence for any such nonsense!” And, prior to 1900 or so, you’d be right. At that time there was no evidence to connect data or observation with any concept of the mutability of atoms. But in another sense, says Ratzsch, there was evidence: bright shining evidence that rose every morning and set every night. If not for the mutability of atoms, there could be no sunshine! Prior to 1900, however, no one knew that, because the requisite background knowledge and discoveries had not yet been made and there wasn’t anyway to connect observaton — sunshine — with the hypothesis — that atoms are mutable. Thus the scientist who says there is “no evidence” for ‘X’, may be correct in one sense — that we lack sufficient background knowledge to connect data or observation with theory or explanation, but in another sense, it may be grossly in factual error to make that claim.
That connection between data and observation to theory or explanation can really get sticky if one’s philosophical presuppostion or worldview precludes even the possibility of certain types of cause and effect ever being possible, even in principle. A dogmatic approach to such presuppositions can stultify science and scientific findings. The entire debate/discussion between YEC and OEC or between ID and NAturalism are good cases in point in how this plays out in actual scientific practice. The question I often ask, because I think it is a good clarifying question, is “how do you know scientifically that the properties of the cosmos are such that any observed design in natural systems can not be actual design, even in principle? Of course it should be obvious that there is no scientific answer to this question, but lots of philosophcial ones…which is, of course, the point! This is why I think that any fruitful discussion on things like YEC/OEC or ID/Naturalism need first acknowledge where one’s philosophical presuppositions lie. Unwillingness to admit to ones presuppositions serves no purpose other than to cut off any meaningful discussion off at the pass. And anyone who tries to claim, as I’ve often seen on blogsites, that philosophical considerations simply play no part in science, are simply grossly misquided and outright wrong. Personally, I’d like to see a bit more intellectual honsesty on this point, especially among the anti-ID crowd, or the anti-YEC crowd.