Ontology or epistemology

Chris Mooney says why compatibilism matters via a discussion of Robert Pennock’s testimony at the Kitzmiller trial and Judge Jones’s decision.

Jones and Pennock describe science, and its “ground rule” of methodological naturalism, as an inquiry into the workings of the natural world–one assuming the existence of natural laws that we can discern, and naturalistic processes that we can measure and describe. But, they add, there science basically ends. Is there a “supernatural” that is somehow beyond or outside of nature? Science just can’t say.

Why can’t science say? Because a “supernatural” that is somehow beyond or outside of nature is by definition beyond or outside anything we can meaningfully inquire into: ‘meaningfully’ in the sense of being able to get real results. The reasons science can’t say are the reasons no one can say. It’s not as if science can’t say but some other kind of inquiry or investigation or examination can. There is no discipline or branch of knowledge that can say. That which is outside or beyond is outside or beyond – so we know nothing about it. That means all of us – not just scientists, but all of us.

People can of course believe anything they want to about that which is outside or beyond – but that’s not the same thing as being able to say. I think people who say ‘science can’t say’ often tend to blur that distinction, whether deliberately or not. I think saying ‘science can’t say’ leaves an impression that non-science can say, which is mistaken.

Pennock’s testimony, a key basis for all this, draws a core distinction between such methodological naturalism on the one hand, and “philosophical naturalism” (or atheism) on the other. The latter is a stronger view, and goes beyond the limits of science to claim that the natural is all there is, period. This view may well be true; indeed, I personally believe it to be true. But it is a philosophical view, not a scientific one.

Not exactly. Atheism doesn’t necessarily or always claim that the natural is all there is; atheism doesn’t even necessarily or always claim that there is no God; atheism can be and often is just non-theism, which needn’t say anything so definite as that the natural is all there is. Furthermore, even more assertive atheism, or ‘strong’ atheism, doesn’t necessarily claim that the natural is all there is; it often contents itself with pointing out that the natural is all we can know anything about.

In truth I’m not really sure how philosophical naturalism fits here – I’m not sure whether or not it’s true that philosophical naturalism does necessarily say as a matter of definition that the natural is all there is, period, or whether it says simply that we (humans, stuck here in nature) don’t and can’t know anything about the non-natural. I don’t know if its claims are ontological or epistemological. But frankly I’m a little skeptical that many people are philosophical naturalists of the type who say the natural is all there is, period. I suspect that the vast majority say simply that no one knows, and perhaps further that, by definition, no one can know.

Does it matter? Yes, I think so. I think it’s at least possible that if Chris and other accommodationists could take it on board that most atheists and philosophical naturalists don’t actually claim that the natural is all there is, period, but rather that anything beyond nature is beyond us so we simply can’t know anything about it – then there might be less worry about strategy. Because the next bit of Chris’s argument goes:

Crucially, such logic suggests that it is most emphatically possible to accept the results of science’s naturalistic methodology, and yet also retain supernatural beliefs that science cannot touch.

But that’s still true with philosophical naturalism if it is as I have described it. It’s perfectly possible to know that one can’t know X and still believe X. It’s a constant battle, to be sure, and there’s no guarantee that atheists and naturalists won’t always be saying ‘But there’s no good reason to believe that’ – but that’s life as a grown-up, isn’t it.

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