In 1969, NASA faked the moon landing - there was a huge conspiracy to cover up the facts that the landing was actually filmed in Hollywood. Well, that's what the conspiracy theories claim. What about the eye-witness claims of the astronauts themselves? They must have been in the conspiracy. What about all of the people supporting the landing effort - scientists, engineers, film crews, etc…? They must have also been in the conspiracy.

Conspiracy theories are examples of self-sealing ideas - any criticism can be rolled up into the theory, and either used to support the theory or to make it easy to dodge criticism. In general self-sealing ideas obstruct efforts to find the truth because they make it particularly challenging to dislodge the bad idea. As such, scientists try to make sure that all proposed explanations are falsifiable, and are thus much less likely to fall prey to this effect.

Argument for the limits of science from its self-sealing methods

In his debate with Matt Dillahunty on "Did Jesus Rise From The Dead?", Blake Giunta's closing statement has this very clever argument for the supernatural, claiming that the methods of science itself form such a self-sealing process. He then provides two analogies to drive home the point. I have never heard anyone else make this argument, and it is challenging to see what the issue actually is, which is why it has been on the back of my mind since the first time I heard it expressed on the Dogma Debate.

So here is the argument, and the two analogies. The argument starts with the statement that the basis of science is methodological naturalism - the deliberate restriction of science to natural causes for natural events. This is distinct from philosophical naturalism - the claim that the natural world is all there is. Philosophical naturalism is typically seen as not scientific, because science can never demonstrate that there is nothing beyond the natural world. However the processes of science proceed as if there is nothing beyond the natural world. So far I have no problem with this. Matt looked at the evidence put forward about the resurrection, claimed that Blake had not demonstrated supernatural cause, further claimed that there is no known demonstration of the supernatural, and that the "facts" surrounding the resurrection (e.g. apostle's claims to have seen the risen Jesus after he had apparently died, followed by their life reformation) probably have a natural explanations, even if we can't be sure right now what they are. Matt is perfectly correct here.

Blake's argument continues here and says that Matt has chosen a self-sealing methodology that rules out, a priori, any supernatural explanations. Blake's argument is:

  1. Science has been very successful in the past in coming up with natural explanations by presupposing naturalism (i.e. methodological naturalism).
  2. We are faced with an explanation that may go beyond science (i.e. a supernatural explanation).
  3. We reject the supernatural explanation as a matter of method (i.e. methodological naturalism again).
  4. We claim that eventually we will find a naturalistic explanation.

Thus, the method is sealed against any possible supernatural explanations.

Analogies to the self-sealing nature of science

The two analogies Blake introduces are methodological geologism and methodological Biblical inerrantism. In the former, the investigator is studying formations of rocks and presupposes geological (i.e. non-agent driven) processes - and happens to be looking at Stonehenge at the time. In the latter, the investigator is studying the claims in the Bible. Let's see how this plays out.

  1. Geology has been very successful in the past in coming up with geological explanations by presupposing geological processes (i.e. methodological geologism).
  2. We are faced with an explanation that may go beyond geology (i.e. humans designed Stonehenge).
  3. We reject the "humans designed Stonehenge" explanation as a matter of method (i.e. methodological geologism again).
  4. We claim that eventually we will find a geological explanation for Stonehenge.

And the other case

  1. Inerrantism has been very successful in the past in coming up with literal explanations by presupposing inerrancy in the Bible (i.e. methodological inerrantism).
  2. We are faced with an explanation that may go beyond inerrantism (i.e. a supposed contradiction).
  3. We reject the "supposed contradiction" as a matter of method (i.e. methodological inerrantism again).
  4. We claim that eventually we will find a literal explanation for the contradiction (i.e. context, misinterpretation, we don't have the original, etc…).

Each of these cases clearly leads to incorrect conclusions, yet the process seals itself away from the injection of the truth. Blake claims that the same problem happens with science in general - it seals itself away from the injection of the truth of supernatural claims.

Where the problem lies

Let's say that we decide not to declare the Bible inerrant. Where does that get us? We almost immediately make more sense of the data than would be with the presumption of inerrancy. These patterns allow us to make predictions, both about new texts we might discover, but also about the types of patterns we might not observe otherwise. If we assume that, say, the texts were copied from each other we immediately see that Mark was most likely the first Gospel, and suddenly the goals of the authors becomes more clear. It suddenly makes sense of the types of discrepancies - how, for example, could there be very detailed word-for-word correspondence on mundane details in stories and yet there can be clear deviations on things as simple to memorize as the Lord's Prayer? The disconnected two-creation stories of Genesis make sense, especially when compared to books outside the Bible which we wouldn't have considered with "methodological inerrantism".

What about abandoning the geological processes for human-design processes? There are fields of science around the description of human-designed artifacts, fitting into the overall fields of anthropology and archaeology. If we abandon a geological description of Stonehenge and assume human design, we can make many predictions which end up being verified - whereas the same sort of predictions assuming geological processes only are either refuted or become ad-hoc when faced with Stonehenge. We would want our geologists to not waste their time on this sort of thing, and thus expect them to recognize (most of the time) structures that have been influenced by living beings and those influenced by geology.

So, when we abandon the "methodological inerrantism" and "methodological geologism" we find that we can make specific predictions and realize that the method itself was too restrictive. We could cling to the method anyway, of course, but that would be a dogmatic ideological position to hold.

Back to Science

What happens if we try to expand our scientific inquiry to include the supernatural? Are we being dogmatic and ideological to reject it out of hand? Methodological naturalism is the resulting method when you attempt to include the supernatural, or supernatural agency, and fail…again….and again. The reason why scientists apply methodological naturalism is not that they believe that there are no possible supernatural entities, it is just that every attempt to include them has either failed or found after the fact to have diverted the attention away from the correct explanation. Further, those proposing the supernatural have never developed a method for confirming it. Unlike deviating from Biblical inerrancy, where it is immediately informative, or deviating from geology, where it is immediately informative, deviating from naturalism has never been informative. Unlike the other two analogous cases proposed, if we try to include the supernatural we don't end up with predictions, we don't end up with self-consistent explanations, and we don't end up with anything useful. Methodological naturalism is the result of trying to deviate from that method and falling flat. Methodological naturalism is used not merely for its success (as Blake contends) but also for the failure of the alternatives. In his analogous cases, the alternatives don't fail.

Do we even need to interject the supernatural here?

This is the final problem with the argument Blake presents. He is forced to interject the supernatural into his explanation precisely because the evidence is so weak. Consider what would convince us someone came back from the dead after three days. Pretty much some simple medical tests (EEG, EKG, etc…) after the person was dead, and perhaps for some time during the three days, and then observations afterward. We could have compelling evidence (it wouldn't have to convince everyone) for this regardless of the explanation. The explanation could be all natural - a new cure, new technology, alien intervention, etc… or we could leave it as an unknown - "hmmmm, that's odd…." The evidence for the event is different than the cause of the event. In the case of the resurrection, as with all other claimed miracles, we don't have good evidence that anything actually happened for us to explain, so trying to come up with a cause is premature.

What we have in Blake's argument, assuming all of his best data is correct, is that some anonymous person reports years after the events that someone else claims he saw a person alive, crucified, and walking around again several days later. There is no physical evidence at all, there are no medical scans or anything that can distinguish a hundred different possibilities, and we are hearing it second-hand, years afterward, in anonymous texts which show evidence of legendary development. That wouldn't convince anyone today, and so shouldn't convince anyone about the events 2000 years ago. The only way to bring it to the point of convincing is to assume the supernatural, an assumption that has never been demonstrated to be reliable. This is an admission of defeat - the evidence for the event itself is so bad we have to assume an untestable, unreliable process that caused it.

Science isn't the only show in town because it excludes the contenders as a matter of method. It is the only show in town because the contenders never showed up.