Enterprising science needs naturalism

Wesley R. Elsberry

There is a distinction to be made between descriptive and prescriptive philosophical treatments of science. For example, while some take Popperian falsificationism as a recipe for the practice of science, Popper's discussion of various sciences so-called makes it clear that he intended science to be recognized because it included falsifiability, not because falsifiability might be added, like some rare spice, to an existing field of study. Kuhn also wrote no cookbooks, rather, he reappraised what actual scientific practice looked like. It is no accident that both of these philosophers came to use natural selection as a metaphor for the operation of science. The modern practice of science is premised upon the radical assumption that the physical universe is comprehensible to humans. That this assumption is radical is supported by the fact that it has not always historically been accepted, that it remains largely unassimilated even today, and that many explicitly reject it since they believe that it denies any reality to theism, mysticism, or even mystery. The modern practice of science also requires that objectivity be approximated, even if it cannot in principle be completely achieved. The practice of science is a pragmatic endeavor whose principle product is the conversion of subjective personal experience into an approximation of objective knowledge concerning physical phenomena. While the subjective appreciation of a role for supernatural mechanism may be important to personal fulfillment, it does not afford a basis for objective knowledge, nor can it be counted as a means of comprehending the universe in a scientific manner. I will connote "naturalism" as "proposing only natural mechanisms for physical phenomena" rather than "asserting that only natural mechanisms have existence". The debate over naturalism and its relationship to scientific practice most often arises today in discussion of education in biology. There is concern in education that discussion of the scientific method should include information not only about how science ought to be conducted, but also about how science actually is conducted. My answer to the question, "Does the scientific method exclude appeals to supernatural mechanisms?" has to be yes, since I consider naturalism to be a corollary to the assumption that the universe is comprehensible by humans. Rejection of naturalism amounts to an assertion that some parts of the universe are not comprehensible by humans, which may be a true, but sterile, stance. I entertain the possibility that the founding assumption of science may be literally false, but even if it is sometimes false, it is often true and retains much value thereby. If science were considered as a function, its domain is physical phenomena and its range is the set of scientific explanations of those phenomena. Natural explanations are the only known variety that produce an increase in scientific comprehension. The claim made by A.E. Wilder-Smith that simulations of evolutionary processes demonstrated the failure of natural explanations is demonstrated to have been false, as evidenced by the success of the fields of artificial life, genetic algorithms, and evolutionary programming.

Copyright © Wesley R. Elsberry