Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Anybody Who Is Anybody Fallacy

Academics have a bad habit of acting as if there is a consensus of scholarship because there is consensus within their own in-group. People will say "everybody is a materialist," and then when you point out people who aren't, it is assumed that those people are somehow marginal. It's the Anybody Who Is Anybody Fallacy. There's no principled way of deciding who to marginalize.

The same thing seems to happen amongst biblical scholars, but it doesn't mean much of anything. I asked a question in my response to John earlier which he didn't answer. If you marginalize all the evangelicals, who else are you going to marginalize? Brown? Fitzmeyer? Metzger? Wright? Bauckham? C. H. Dodd? Joachim Jeremias? Eta Linneamann? Luke Timothy Johnson? Why them and not Robert Price, who seems as marginal on the left as conservative scholars are on the right?

Further, if being a credentialed Bible scholar is so important, why are you and Richard Carrier speaking about these subjects at all? Neither of you are credentialed Bible scholars.

Many of the issues in biblical scholarship are philosophical, and not simply matters of biblical study. The problem of the antecedent probability of the miraculous is an important issue for scholarship, and yet I attended a conference of philosophers and biblical scholars in which one biblical scholar confessed complete ignorance of the debate on the subject, and who admitted that he had followed Bultmann blindly on the subject. (Bultmann's electric light argument against miracles is one of the worst arguments I have ever heard). Craig's debate with Ehrman did show that Ehrman had no understanding of the relevant philosophical issues either.


Blue Devil Knight said...

Makes me happy to be in science.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, why weigh yourself down with metaphysics and philosophy, unresolvable questions based on sheer speculation, when as a scientist you can do all that and pretend you aren't?

Your being "in science" neither removes you from these arguments, nor the BS that comes with them.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Anon: Perhaps you could write us a primer on the ontological underpinnings of the neuron, or a metaphysical treatise on sodium conductances in the human brain. I'm sure that would be very helpful to those poor neuroscientists with their gaping intellectual blind spots.

Philosophy is great for some things. E.g., exploring logical possibilities, keeping logical possibilities alive, and being hyper-vigilant about mistakes in reasoning.

My point was that in some of the more hard sciences, for instance my field of neurophysiology, the ability to do controlled experiments provides a big advantage (in terms of results and rate of progress). Data not only eliminate large swaths of conceptual possibilities, but also are a crucial and incredibly fertile source of novel concepts--puzzling data are the seeds of new ideas).

Because of that, we don't end up in camps and schools quite as much. Which is nice. Philosophers, I think, would often rather argue than find out the truth.

Gimli 4 the West said...

BDK, thanks for the thoughts. I remember my college education under chemistry professors who, being much smarter than myself and mostly unbelievers, were nonetheless gracious to me and my faith.

My biochemistry professor went out of his way to draw philosophical connotations to the often repetitive and boring work of science. His idea was that humans are collections atoms and forces and that's about it and we just need to live with it. I asked him one time privately if that is all there is or is there something else. He said, “There has to be something else,” but didn’t know what it was.

I’m not trying to convince you the “something else” is my faith. But, is there something else?

Blue Devil Knight said...

David: I am a pretty thoroughgoing naturalist. For instance I believe that conscious experience is a biological process, an evolved feature of complex nervous systems (I started to write out my ideas more specifically on consciousness, links are here).

Similarly, I look at digestion, respiration, etc as very interesting, even beautiful, biological processes. For me that doesn't take away the interest or fascination, but compounds it.

If I were not a naturalist, I'd probably attack naturalism based on mathematical truths, moral claims which seem to be easier to crack if you think there literally exist abstract mathematical or moral propositions, with objective truth values.

Consciousness is a popular point of contention for non-naturalists, but I personally am less convinced by such arguments.

Bilbo said...


I think we need to make a distinction between experimental science and historical science. The first is concerned with discovcering the way the world normally operates. The second with what actually happened. Historical scientists rely upon experimental science in order to help them try to figure out what happened. But unless the insist upon naturalism, supernatural explanations cannot be ruled out a priori. Whereas experimental science must assume that there are natural operations that are discoverable. Otherwise it couldn't exist.

Bilbo said...

oops..."...unless they insist...."

Blue Devil Knight said...

Bilbo: I agree that it is an important distinction. E.g., evolutionary biology is partly a historical science. I don't buy that somehow the rules or standards should change for historical science. Methodological naturalism rules the day, until the evidence is strong enough to suggest otherwise.

Bilbo said...

Yes, but determining when the evidence is strong enough is the question.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Sure, but in the meantime, the rules aren't different. It doesn't make sense to have different rules just because something happened in the past, unless there is strong evidence that things worked differently in the past.

Of course, people are personally free to interpret data how they want (e.g., this mutation from adenine to guanine was performed by God). But that won't make it science.

Bilbo said...

But then we're back to the problem of insisting upon naturalism. The experimental scientist must assume it in order to do science. It is not at all clear that the historical scientist must.

But even if we grant that the historical scientist must assume it, that doesn't necessarily mean that the results of historical science would be true. If naturalism is false, then the conclusions of historical science may occasionally be false.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Bilbo: without more about why our reasoning about reasonable mechanisms, in science, should be radically different in the past versus present, I am just not following you. You are the one that said in the "experimental" sciences we go by methodological naturalism (true). But then to add that somehow the timing of events removes justification for this? It doesn't follow.

(Note historical sciences can be experimental too, but it is just harder to do controlled experiments: we can compare genome sequences of different species to construct phylogenetic trees--that's an experiment).

As I said, feel free to follow the strategy of having different standards, but you won't be doing science. And I have no idea why you'd say that should be done. Clearly it isn't what is done, and the success of evolutionary biology, astrophysics (e.g., of star formation), and linguistics suggests we don't need magic to explain our data.

Again, if evidence comes up to the contrary, science will have to change. But methodological naturalism isn't there because it is a dogma, but because it utterly destroyed the alternative and consistently outperformed it.

Now, if you want to be a supernaturalist why not be one about now. About measurement in quantum mechanics? Why should that be treated differently just because it can be experimentally manipulated in the present?

No, the standards aren't different, and they shouldn't be unless you have a good reason.

Note I'm not talking about history here. I am not a historian. I am talking about historical sciences like evolutionary biology, certain branches of linguistics, etc..

Blue Devil Knight said...

And yes, methodological naturalism is an insistence upon naturalism. That's sort of the point.

But as I said, personally someone is free to be a a methodological naturalist but ontological supernaturalist.

Bilbo said...

Experimental science is an attemprt to understand how nature normally operates. This assumes that there is something we can call nature and that it operates according to discoverable principles. If those assumptions are wrong, then the justification for doing experimental science flies out the window. Methodological naturalism is a sine qua non of experimental science.

Historical science, on the other hand, is about what happened. If naturalism is wrong, and supernatural interventions have occurred, then methodological naturalism (MN) will prevent the historical scientist from discovering them.

Thus a cosmologist assuming MN when contemplating the fine-tuning of the universe, will never consider the possibility that God fine-tuned it.

Thus an origin of life scientist assuming MN will never consider the possibility that it is best explained as the product of advanced nanotechnology.

Thus a historian assuming methodological naturalism when considering whether Jesus rose from the grave, will come to the conclusion that he didn't.

Now maybe MN is required for historical science, though I don't see why. But if it is, then it seems reasonable to believe that it won't find the truth about some things.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Yes, MN should lead to all those, excepts history. I'm talking about natural science, not history. I have no expertise in history or its methods. Just as someone studying how a neuron works won't assume there are supernatural nuggets at work, someone investigating how life arose qua scientist, will do the same. Just because they are reconstructing the past doesn't let them off the hook.

Not sure why you think time adds a methodological difference, that science should somehow jettison what works so well in the present. It just doesn't make sense to me.

Bilbo said...

Time isn't the problem. The problem is whether the principles by which nature operates can be superceded, say by a supernatural intelligence, and if so, could we have good reason for thinking that they have been. I think the answer is yes to both and should be included in science. But if we decide not to include those factors in science, then so much the worse for science.

Victor Reppert said...

There is an "opportunity cost" involved in methodological naturalism. If it is adhered to strictly and absolutely, then no matter what the evidence is, any supernatural occurrences that might actually take place have to perforce be missed. (This, of course, assumes that we have a clear way of distinguishing the natural and the supernatural, which is what has to be determined.) I think Sherlock Holmes in the Hound of the Baskervilles says that if if the Hound really is supernatural there really wouldn't be anything he could do about it, so he figured he ought to concern himself with all the non-supernatural options instead. Been a long time since I've read it, so I'm not sure I have it right. Probably the further you get from the "naturalistic" the less science knows what to do with it, so maybe it makes sense to map out what can be dealt with most easily by science first, and then figure out the hard stuff later. But if that's the basis for methodological naturalism, it doesn't look like there's much of any good argument from science to naturalistic metaphysics.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Victor is probably right: I'm focusing on methodological, not metaphysical, naturalism. (Though the unparalleled success of the former does give some evidence to the latter).

Rasmus Møller said...

BDK et al.:

Can science ever conclude that something happened because someone intended that thing to happen?

Blue Devil Knight said...

Rasmus: forensics, anthropology, and other sciences do that all the time. We think stonehenge was put there intentionally because formations like that don't happen naturally, and humans create structures like that for various reasons we already understand (puzzlement about how something could happen naturally is not sufficent to establish it was designed, Dembski's explanatory filter notwithstanding).