News and Commentary
Origins & Design 18:2

NTSE: An Intellectual Feast

John W. Burgeson
Durango, Colorado

On February 20-23, 1997, a conference was held in Austin, Texas, discussing the "Theistic Science" proposals of Phillip Johnson and others and whether these ought to be allowed as part of "science." Proponents of all sides (it is not a two-choice problem) were on hand for the debate. The conference title describes the subject: "Naturalism, Theism and the Scientific Enterprise."

In the hit musical, Fiddler on the Roof, there is a poignant scene where Tevya, a man more blessed with family than material possessions, daydreams about being wealthy. At one point he sings that having time to peruse "the holy books" would be the greatest benefit he could envision.

In this conference, 125 people took the time to "peruse the holy books" on this topic of the relationship of theism and naturalism; in particular how the business of science ought to be properly carried out. I was fortunate to be one of them; it was with great delight that I wandered around during session breaks, from conversation to conversation, all about this subject of high interest. An intellectual feast!

Dr. Rob Koons, a professor in the University of Texas Philosophy Department, hosted the conference. As part of his innovative approach, he established an NTSE web site before the conference ever took place -- most of the thirty-nine papers presented were available for reading in advance -- this made the presentations and ensuing discussions flow very smoothly. The web site is still up -- and Rob tells me it will exist "for the foreseeable future." Set your browser to:

In a real sense, the conference is not yet over! A "listserv" has been established and dialog on the issues continues. To join in the discussions, send an e-mail message to listserv with the message body: Subscribe NTSE Joe Blow (substitute your real name for "Joe Blow").

Once subscribed, you will be sent an e-mail with more information, including how to unsubscribe, get posts in digest form, and other options. The Listserv is open to all interested parties.

Plenary speakers at the NTSE conference included two theists, Phillip Johnson (Law School, UC-Berkeley), and Dr. Alvin Plantinga (Philosophy Department, University of Notre Dame), and two non-theists, Dr. Fred Grinnell (UT Southwestern Medical Center) and Dr. Michael Ruse (Philosophy Department, University of Guelph). All of these have published works on the issues. The attendees, which were admitted on a "first come, first served" basis, were primarily from academia, and included many non-theists. Most of the papers presented were by philosophers or scientists. The sessions were marked by a mutual respect between people with widely diverse viewpoints. Compared with most internet listservs, and the Compuserve Religious Issues forum, where I serve as sysop, the lack of ad hominems was refreshing.

Dr. Koons has his own closing report on the conference on the web site. The June issue of the ASA's Perspectives has published another one, by Ray Grizzle. What I add to these two reports is a third view, based partly on the papers and talks I attended (overlapping sessions made it impossible to get to more than half of them), partly on conversations during the breaks and partly on ensuing discussions on the Evolution and ASA Listservs operated by Calvin College and on Compuserve's Religious Issues forum. The papers are available for the world to read. The NTSE Listserv is available to anyone. The issues are clearly defined. What are the issues? In my view, there are five:

Is it necessary and proper to have a debate about whether methodological naturalism (MN) is a necessary foundation of science?

No doubt there are those who hold this position. None of them were at the conference. One subject everyone seemed to agree upon was that the conference discussions were worthwhile.

Is the statement "methodological naturalism is a necessary foundation for science" true by definition?

Many of the participants, yours truly among them, continue to hold to this position. On my part, it is what I was taught (Carnegie Tech, 1950s); my rationale is that it works well. During the conference it became clear that this was not at all a theist versus non-theist question. It is even possible that a non-theist might not hold it. One conference participant mentioned that this seems to be an English definitional problem; in German, the word "Wissenschaft" is the closest equivalent to the English "science" and includes all kinds of serious study, including religious studies.

Phil Johnson suggested that this question will be, for the most part, answered in the negative within the next year or so. Steven Schafersman, a speaker at the convention (more about him later), took issue with this, as did several others. Phil then commented (all quotations in this essay are from my notes and may not conform exactly to published remarks. Any errors in them, of course, are mine); "How far have we gone? We are just about there. The word 'there' means that arbitrary rules can no longer determine what gets argued. The rule that methodological naturalism must be assumed is, specifically, the rule that cannot any longer be invoked in arguments about, for instance, intelligent design proposals." Again, some in the audience, several of them theists, disagreed. It was a lively and fascinating discussion.

Can "intelligent design" (ID) be properly investigated as a legitimate part of science?

What I saw, and agreed with, was that it could be. I did not perceive any strong dissent to this from other conference participants. Whether such research would be fruitful (in a scientific sense) is yet to be determined.

Is the the idea of "intelligent design" necessarily entwined with considerations of the supernatural?

It seems clear to me that in today's social and political environment, it is, but it is not clear to me that it needs to be. This aspect of the issue was not explored as far as it might have been.

Do the research projects of intelligent design point to the Christian God?

While not part of the NTSE agenda, this question seems to be behind all the others, at least for those arguing for theistic science. I think the best answer to it is that when (if) intelligent design is an established scientific concept, the results of that science may make a belief in the Christian God intellectually more satisfying. Or, as Phil Johnson put it, ID will be "theist-friendly," rather than "theist-hostile." I choose the verb "may" in place of Phil's "will be" deliberately, for I think this part of the issue has not yet been sufficiently explored. Perhaps it is still premature to do so.

Rob Koons ended the conference with what he saw as his own "two primary rules of science," to wit:

a. Seek the truth.
b. Use your own light in doing so.

He endorsed the theistic science (TS) paradigm advanced by Johnson and Plantinga. This sounds to this skeptical person (I am a Christian) more like religion than science. Phil Johnson observed that theistic science was going to catch on rather quickly. I told him (and others on the ASA and Evolution Listservs) that if TS did get accepted, it would not be for many, many years.

A few general comments which may be of interest:

• I heard no one at the conference defend the writings of Richard Dawkins. There were several instances when these were disparaged; no one rose in opposition. Many of the attacks came from people who described themselves as metaphysical naturalists.

• The presentations by William Dembski ("Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information") and Paul Nelson ("Jettison the Arguments, or the Rule? The Place of Darwinian Theological Themata in Evolutionary Reasoning") were particularly well attended and discussed, both in the question/answer sessions and in break conversations afterwards. It was good to finally be able to put a "face" with these two worthy proponents of the intelligent design paradigm! One of the definitional problems that seems to plague this effort is the proper understanding of the term "Complex Specified Information" (CSI). On the Evolution Listserv, Brian Harper (Ohio State) and I thrashed out the following analogy as a way of explaining CSI (errors, if any, are mine, not Brian's):

We find in a certain countryside that all the barns have one arrow stuck in their sides. We suspect a local (unnamed) archer. There are three scenarios:

  1. Archer draws target on barn side, then shoots arrow to center.
  2. Archer shoots arrow at barn side. No target is present.
  3. Archer shoots arrow at barn side, then draws target around it.

Question: does the archer have skill?

The three scenarios above are, of course, "the good, the bad and the ugly." CSI exists only in scenario #1. The "proposed law" here is, "The archer hits what he shoots at."

If the TS researcher shows that there are barns all over the county, with arrows stuck in the center of painted targets on their sides, and a local archer who tells people "I did it," then he is entitled to make both the assumption "the archer lies" and "the archer tells the truth," and to carry these two assumptions through ensuing investigations, looking for collaborating evidence, always seeking the "best" explanation. I think that the MN adherent (in this example) is stuck with only one (the first) explanation to work with.

• Comments on Michael Ruse's speech:

Ruse was very friendly with Phil Johnson, and the two apparently respect one another, while each has quite different positions on the issues (A welcome environment for discussion, which makes most Internet conversations look rather childish). Ruse made it clear that he "does not agree with anyone." He defines naturalism as "unbroken laws." He defined scientism as an "absurd" position that science can solve everything, and cited both Julian Huxley and E. O. Wilson as examples of people who held that conviction, making more of "evolution" than science has. He does not equate materialism with naturalism, and is unconvinced by Daniel Dennett's arguments on dualism. He observed that Dennett wrote that "Darwinism implies materialism," but this is an assertion, and is given without proof.

Ruse spoke also about Philosophical Naturalism, holding that it is simply an attempt to make philosophy more science-like -- it is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. He also remarked that evolution is a scientific theory with a metaphysical component, as are all scientific theories. Evolution theory HAS functioned as a secular religion, but this is a misuse of science. He will not accept the label "metaphysical naturalist." He says he is not a Christian, primarily on the grounds of the problem of evil.
Ruse spoke about the writings of Richard Dawkins at some length, being less pleased with him than with many Christian theists. The Paley eye was disproved by Darwin, he said, but this does not disprove God. Dawkins says the world is "pitiless." Ruse: "You have not shown this."

Ruse quotes with favor J. S. Haldane's "The world is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer that we ever CAN imagine." "A little humility is a good thing," he said. He closed with the statement, "I am not an atheist; I am a skeptic."

• One chart from Fred Grinnell's talk -- "In God We Trust; All Others Bring Data" -- intrigued me. It read:
If it can't be measured, or counted, or photographed, it ain't science. Even if it is important.
Prof. Grinnell, of course, asserts that methodological naturalism is a necessary foundational basis of science. Some of the discussion following his talk concerned that issue. Perhaps practitioners of Theistic Science are simply doing something-not-science. If so, all we are arguing about are word definitions.

• Another paper presented on this subject was by Wesley Elsberry. In "Enterprising Science Needs Naturalism," he develops a "yes" answer to the question "Does the scientific method exclude appeals to supernatural causation?" He made it clear that "naturalism equals proposing only natural mechanisms for physical phenomena" does not equate to "only natural mechanisms have existence." Rejection of naturalism then amounts to an assertion that some parts of the universe are not comprehensible by humans, which may be a true, but sterile stance.

Much of what Elsberry writes I can accept; one part I cannot. He writes: "While the subjective appreciation of a role for supernatural causation 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." As a Christian, who has personal encounters with God, I can agree only to the first and last phrases of that assertion, not the middle one. The knowledge I have of God is not "about Him" so much as it is "of Him." J. I. Packer's Knowing God has an excellent discussion of this. That private knowledge, I assert, is objective to me, even if necessarily subjective to others. Because of this, I MUST count it as a means of comprehending the universe -- yes -- in a "scientific" manner. What I cannot do is use that private knowledge in a scientific experiment or theory.

For more on this issue, see Kitty Ferguson's The Fire in the Equations, Eerdmans, 1995, particularly chapter 7 on "Inadmissible Evidence," which begins on page 241.

• I come now to one of the most interesting and provocative papers presented at the conference, Steven Schafersman's "Naturalism is Today -- By History, Philosophy, and Purpose -- An Essential Part of Science". Schafersman wrote one chapter in Laura Godfrey's classic book, Scientists Confront Creationism, which was published in 1983. He said he'd "been out of the conflict" for the past five years or so.

In his paper, Schafersman develops the argument that, on a moral basis, theists ought not "to do science." Specifically, he asserts: "I believe assuming the truth of naturalism only for the purpose of conducting or believing science is a logical and moral mistake." Later, he expands on this, by writing, "The moral entailment of ontological naturalism by methodological naturalism does not create an ethical lapse among those supernaturalists who assume methodological naturalism (for the purposes of science), but something similar to an insincerity or want of courage. ..."

He also writes, "Supernaturalism (is) the antithesis of naturalism ... Since everyone agrees that the natural exists, it is the responsibility of the supernaturalist to demonstrate the existence of the supernatural. This they have not done." This, of course, was a primary argument of the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Schafersman is easy to read; among other skills he has a good sense of humor. For instance, he writes, "Naturalistic explanations do an excellent job of explaining a great deal about nature, including the presence in our bodies of a sewage disposal pipeline in the middle of a major recreational area." On a more sober note, he writes "Science is a truth-seeking, problem-solving, method of inquiry. The reliability of its scientific method depends on the correctness of three ancient philosophies ... empiricism, rationalism and skepticism . . . these three epistomologies are taught in schools as 'critical thinking,' a methodology indistinguishable, in my opinion, from scientific thinking."

Schafersman also turned to philosophy: "Metaphysical naturalism makes no moral or normative statements, and it advances no social concerns, both of which seem to me to be essential elements of any religion." He discussed "scientism," stating he does not hold to it. He talked of the "three philosophical worlds,"(1) material/physical, (2) immaterial, such as ideas, mind, and values and (3) the transcendent, such as gods and souls. Belief in only world 1 constitutes materialism, belief in worlds 1 and 2 constitutes naturalism, and belief in all three constitutes supernaturalism. He holds that supernaturalists "harbor their beliefs without empirical evidence." I think this claim turns on a specific definition of "empirical." My own belief in God rests, at least in part, on my own experiences, which are "empirical" to me, for I experienced them, but not to anyone else.

Eugenie Scott writes in Creationism, Ideology, and Science, on page 519, "Saying 'there is no purpose in life' is not a scientific statement." Schafersman disagrees with this. You'll have to read his paper to see why.

I had several discussions with Dr. Schafersman during the conference and observed him in others. I found him to be very likable, polite and gentlemanly, yet forceful in defending his beliefs. It is possible, you see, to disagree sharply on issues of considerable importance without transforming one's opponent into an "enemy."

• Another interesting paper was "Scientific Method and Appeal to Supernatural Agency: A Christian Case for Modest Methodological Naturalism", by Dr. Kenneth Kemp, Dept. of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Kemp's thesis is that both the scientific method and the appeal to supernatural agency are generically similar (in that both are instances of the same legitimate pattern of reasoning--appeal to the best explanation) but specifically different (in that there are significant differences in the method by which and in the extent to which each can improve early, reasonably good, explanations). He asserts that human beings, because they have the power of free choice, have, therefore, the power to act in ways not determined by the laws of nature. He subsumes such actions as still being "natural," reserving non-natural causation only for supernatural agents; here, I would argue that human beings, acting through free choices, are also capable of acting "supernaturally" in that respect. He argues for a "weak" form of methodological naturalism in science, one which grants only a strong presumption in favor of appeal to natural causation. A "strong" form would say a natural explanation is ALWAYS to be preferred and an appeal to the supernatural is never satisfactory. Much of his paper describes events in history which represent problems for the strong position.

In summary, NTSE was a watershed event. Because it still "exists," both as most of the presented papers on the web site and as an active listserv, it is still possible to "attend" it. I invite readers of this journal to do so.

Copyright © 1997 John W. Burgeson. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 1.1.98