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Science, Materialism and ID

Paul Nelson of the University of Chicago points out that paleoanthropology, to cite one science, would be impossible without the concept of agency. Scientists use it to distinguish between tools and accidental rubble. “A trained scientist in the field of paleoanthropology can look at something and say, ‘that is an artifact. It is a tool for stripping meat’,” Nelson said. “There’s a whole body of literature in how these things are detected, and the concept of agency is the active ingredient in all such analyses. Materialism strictly applied in such cases is a science stopper.” ~Tom Bethell, “Out of the Corner”

I can only guess what Mr. Derbyshire will have to say to this sort of objection, but citing paleoanthropology seems to me to be a bit of a red herring. Mr. Bethell was objecting to Derbyshire’s claim, “Material causes only are admitted in science.” As a statement of how science is done today, Mr. Derbyshire is right. If he weren’t right, we wouldn’t be having debates about whether we should only admit material causes. But Mr. Derbyshire is also making an ‘ought’ statement: material causes are the only things that should be allowed in science, because, if I might extrapolate, anything else is not empirically demonstrable and testable. Even here I am a bit at a loss as to why he is mistaken.

My response to Mr. Bethell is this: of course, we assume agency in all forms of anthropology, because, if I understand correctly, scientific anthropologists (we will not even worry about the cultural anthro people at the moment) assume reasonably enough that humans and early hominids were capable of volition and cognition more or less as we are. We assume this about prehistoric man because of the similarities between our physiology and his. It seems doubtful to me that we can make similar assumptions about agency in the rest of the natural world.

Even structuralism in the social sciences assumes some kind of agency, as it assumes that people created structures of organisation and thought. That does not mean that we can always assume agency when he encounter complex structures, but only that we have some useful analogies for how we might try to do so from those sciences that study prehistoric man. There is also something slightly odd in invoking what is still in some ways a social science, even if it is heavily empirical and less concerned than most social sciences with meaning, to justify a argument in the natural sciences. The two kinds of science (and my friends who work in physics and engineering snicker whenever they hear me refer to “the social sciences” by name) both use sorts of scientific methods, but they do not pretend to be asking the same questions or inquiring into similar subjects.

I am at risk of endorsing what Cardinal Schoenborn correctly criticised as the purely positivistic form of modern science, which mistakes the material limits of science for the limits of reality and seeks to deprive creation of its intelligibility by falsely excluding reason from the unseen world and making theological statements on the basis of empirical observations. I maintain very strongly that I repudiate that sort of scientism, and I leave it to my readers to judge whether my position is at all coherent. But that scientism is not, unless I am much mistaken, what we are talking about here. I do not see why Derbyshire is wrong here or why sciences that assume human agency in their investigations disprove what he wrote. On metaphysics, I expect that Derbyshire and I would have nothing in common, but here he is on fairly solid ground.

Even granted that non-material does not equal supernatural, as Mr. Bethell notes (though Derbyshire never claimed this), and adding that we conventionally distinguish between intellectual or even psychic causes and more, let us say, grossly material ones, we would be hard-pressed to assume as a matter of science that a similar distinction existed in the natural world. Cardinal Schoenborn’s argument that to have an intelligible cosmos there must be an Intellect behind it seems very convincing to me, and I grant that this can reached by reason and contemplation. But I am skeptical that we can grasp this truth, a truth that is a philosophical claim that admittedly does lay the cultural groundwork for scientific inquiry in the first place, solely by empirical gnosis. I believe this empirical knowledge of the Nous is what we would have to accept if ID, for example, were to be vindicated as science and “non-material causes” were to be admitted into scientific inquiry. Unless I am off base here, that sort of claim sounds like a kind of hyper-empiricism, so that we do not only grant that there are signs or ‘traces’ of an Author in creation.

We do not need to accept iron laws of physical determinism to nonetheless recognise that what we describe and understand as volition is, scientifically speaking, a biochemical process that arises in response to stimuli. That we have good reasons to believe that a human person is far more than an aggregate of such processes is not the question. When it is the question, we are then discussing human consciousness, about which neuroscience can only describe the mechanisms for its operation. What Mr. Bethell invokes as a non-material cause (free will) would either be regarded in terms that would classify it as a material cause (as electrical signals from the brain) or regarded as an importing of a theory of consciousness and volition into a scientific investigation.

Here the Derb lays down the law:

And yes, material causes only are admitted in science, because science is the attempt to find material explanations for observed phenomena. Likewise, only hollow balls 2.5 inches in diameter are allowed in tennis, because tennis is a contest played with 2.5 inch diameter hollow balls. Whether other kinds of balls exist is a matter of opinion among tennis players and fans, I suppose; though if a player were to come on court and attempt to serve a basketball across the net, the rest of us would walk away in disgust.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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