Kansas’s previously proposed science standards had appropriately defined science as “the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us.” Anti-evolutionists want to change this language to the following: “Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation, that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building, to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena.”
This may seem harmless at first glance. But the change carefully removes any reference to science’s search for natural explanations in favor of “more adequate” explanations, creating a opening for creationists to insert the supernatural. Such a change reflects the fact that the new generation of anti-evolutionists has launched an attack on modern science itself, claiming that it amounts, essentially, to institutionalized atheism. Science, they say, has a prejudice against supernatural causation (by which they generally mean “the actions of God”). Instead, the new anti-evolutionists claim that if scientists would simply open their minds to the possible action of forces acting beyond the purview of natural laws, they would suddenly perceive the weaknesses of evolutionary theory.
Now, far be it from me to defend those who falsely claim the mantle of science—and attempt to manufacture controversy where no serious debate exists—in order to sneak their religion into science textbooks. But I think Chris is off-base here.
The problem is, I very much doubt there’s any sort of meaningful distinction to be made between “natural” and “supernatural” accounts in this context, so long as we’re agreed that the proper methodology is the familiar scientific procedure of building theories and hypotheses, then testing them empirically.
If ghosts or gods did exist, after all, wouldn’t they ultimately be as much a part of the natural world as human beings or dolphins or leptons? Could we know, a-priori, that some budding Egon Spengler wouldn’t come up with a scientific test that would detect spectres as easily as we now examine radio spectra?
Turning it around the other way, didn’t some of the conclusions of quantum mechanics strike many classical physicists as “spooky”? Doesn’t science, too, hit rock-bottom at some point, with no further account to be given of certain laws or forces, either for theoretical reasons or because of the practical limits on our ability to investigate? From what I understand about quantum indeterminacy, we can get a set of equations that’ll let us know the probability of a wave packet collapsing one way or another. But—as I understand it—there’s no lawlike way of knowing, even in principle, which it will actually be, or why it went one way rather than another. The actual outcome is, in at least one sense, “beyond the purview of natural laws.” We might even, slightly playfully, call it “supernatural.” But that doesn’t mean it’s stopped being science, does it?
More generally—since my recollection of the physics here is too fuzzy for me to want to place a great deal of weight on the specific example—it seems awfully ambitious to suggest that science is only concerned with inquiries where we can be sure of getting explanations all-the-way-down. How can we know in advance that we won’t ultimately bump up against an impassable question mark, either because of the boundaries of our technology and ability to investigate (as I think we’ve hit re: some propositions in particle physics already) or because, so to speak, the question mark is etched into the universe itself. Isn’t it, well, unscientific to suppose in advance that we know how far our capacity for discovery and further explanation extends—and to suppose that it has no limits?
Addendum: Chatted a bit about this with Chris and one thing I want to add is this: One way of defining “supernatural” is as operating outside natural laws. But that gets a little tricky too, since, of course, we’ve previously encountered lots of phenomena that proved to violate (what we previously believed were) the unchanging universal natural laws. We didn’t dub those things supernatural; we decided that our conception of the relevant natural laws was incomplete, that there were exceptions, and so on. However, having gone over this ground with Chris for a while, it’s not actually clear that we substantively disagree.