Saturday, April 19, 2014
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Reader Feedback: Why Invoking Miracles Is Unlikely to Advance Science

A reader asks why the need for magic indicates a flaw in a scientific idea.

Reader Feedback: Why Invoking Miracles Is Unlikely to Advance Science

A reader posed an interesting question about the last column through Facebook.  

Why is it a "fatal flaw" if "the only way to make a theory work is to invoke the supernatural"? It seems to me that that statement indicates you are taking naturalism as a given.

There follows a back and forth with another reader about why gods aren’t part of science. Both invoked philosopher Karl Popper who is famous for the idea that to qualify as scientific, a theory has to be falsifiable.  One reader says magical things are not falsifiable and the other says they are. The reader who is more favorable to magic offers the following comments:

In any case, falsifiability was proposed by Popper as the demarcation between science and pseudoscience, not between naturalism and supernaturalism. I don't see what it even has to *do* with naturalism. There is no inherent reason that naturalistic explanations are more falsifiable.

Popper is one of my most admired figures in philosophy of science, but he was never able to entirely solve this problem. He distinguished between "virtuous" and "vicious" ad-hoc additions, but was forced to admit that even the "virtuous" ones could prevent a final falsification.

Whether there is evidence or not is a separate discussion. Faye appeared to propose the claim as an epistemological rule, rather than as a contingent claim about the world subject to evaluation on the basis of evidence.

Here’s the passage in the original column in which I use the phrase “fatal flaw”:

"Some creationists have expressed surprise that scientists are averse to invoking deities. But this kind of a deity is just a placeholder for an intellectual gap. If the only way to make a theory work is to invoke the supernatural, that's a fatal flaw."

The column was based on interviews with cosmologists. It’s more a reflection on their thoughts and opinions than my own.

These scientists are not saying that evidence of a supernatural creator would be a “fatal flaw” in some theory. In fact, that would be downright amazing. But at the cosmology meeting that was the subject of this column, nobody was finding any evidence for supernatural entities of any kind.

If there’s no way to make a theory work except to invoke some magic, and there’s no evidence for the said magic, then I think it’s fair to say it’s a fatal flaw. If you allow enough magic, any theory in science could be valid. The problem is nicely illustrated in the above famous cartoon.  

The point of the paragraph in question was that creationists are like the guy in the cartoon, starting with the flaw in a theory and inserting gods, miracles, intelligent designers, or other magical things. It’s not that finding gods makes a theory flawed, it’s that finding flaws does not prove the existence of God.

Christopher Hitchens may not have been a professional philosopher, but he did have a good point when he said: “That which can be asserted with no evidence can be dismissed with no evidence.” 

About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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