I have to agree with Phil Plait when he says that science can evaluate the supernatural. He says:
The latest blurting about this comes from a scientist quoted in a book review. In the review, the science journalist says:
As scientists at Iowa State University put it last year, supernatural explanations are “not within the scope or abilities of science.”
This is 100% wrong. Any claim, any explanation of an event, definitely falls within the scope of science. That’s because science is a method of investigation.
For a little more context – the quote that supernatural explanations are “not within the scope or abilities of science” comes from a number of professors at the University of Iowa [oops – I meant Iowa State University] regarding Intelligent Design:
We, the undersigned faculty members at Iowa State University, reject all attempts to represent Intelligent Design as a scientific endeavor.
Advocates of Intelligent Design claim that the position of our planet and the complexity of particular life forms and processes are such that they may only be explained by the existence of a creator or designer of the universe. However, such claims are premised on (1) the arbitrary selection of features claimed to be engineered by a designer; (2) unverifiable conclusions about the wishes and desires of that designer; and (3) an abandonment by science of methodological naturalism.
Methodological naturalism, the view that natural phenomena can be explained without reference to supernatural beings or events, is the foundation of the natural sciences. The history of science contains many instances where complex natural phenomena were eventually understood only by adherence to methodological naturalism.
Whether one believes in a creator or not, views regarding a supernatural creator are, by their very nature, claims of religious faith, and so not within the scope or abilities of science. We, therefore, urge all faculty members to uphold the integrity of our university of “science and technology,” convey to students and the general public the importance of methodological naturalism in science, and reject efforts to portray Intelligent Design as science. (Link)
There’s a couple of things to be said about this. First, I agree with Phil Plait that science can evaluate the supernatural – within limits. The idea that science cannot evaluate the supernatural is one of those ideas that sounds right up until you start thinking about specific cases. I do think there are specific religious claims that cannot be evaluated, but there are plenty that can be. Further, scientists (and other intelligent people) are pretty clever at coming up with ways of testing some things that you wouldn’t normally think could be tested.
Some examples of supernatural/religious/magical things scientists have attempted to evaluate:
* Do people have telepathic abilities? (A number of universities had programs to study this. Nothing significant was found. Psychics claim it doesn’t work under the unemotional, sterile lab environment, although there is at least one book that studied psychics working on actual crimes and they had abysmal results there, too. One of the interesting things mentioned in that book is that “psychics” produced copious amounts of details about crimes, far more than college students used as controls. When anything was right, they pulled that particular detail out of the pile of details and claimed victory.)
* Does prayer work? (No)
* Can meditation reduce crime rates? (They play games with the charts, and I don’t think there’s anything here.)
* Can people communicate with the dead? (A few skeptics, including Harry Houdini, created a secret word or phrase known to only one person that would be used to verify their identity if any medium claimed to be “in contact” with their spirit after death. While many mediums claimed to be speaking to their spirit, they never knew the secret password.)
* Ouija Boards could produce results unknown to all participants (Penn and Teller did an interesting test of Ouija Boards, when they blinded some “Ouija Board” believers, turned the board 180 degrees and then had then ask questions – predictably, they moved the pointer to locations on the board that would be correct if the board hadn’t been turned.)
Further, there are things in religious books that can be tested.
* Was there a global flood 4300 years ago? (no)
* Is the genetic diversity of the human race compatible with the idea that we all descended from one family 4300 years ago? (No)
* Is the Mormon claim that Native Americans are descended from a small group of Jews compatible with the genetic evidence? (No)
That’s not to say that all religious claims can be tested – claims that God will judge you after you die, or whether Mary was divinely impregnated are simply not testable (we have no data). Further, since religious leaders are free to make any and all claims about the world (e.g. the earth is flat), it’s obvious that many religious claims are subject to scientific scrutiny.
In many cases, the full supernatural explanation would not be considered “science” – e.g. if we discovered that all humans descended from a single family 4300 years ago, and they were the only survivors of a global flood – that doesn’t mean the explanation “God told Noah to build a boat” is a scientific claim. Rather, we would have scientifically verified parts (global flood, only a few people survived), and non-verifiable, religious claims (God talked to Noah). I think there is the potential for a lot of situations like this – there is a scientifically verified piece, and a non-verifiable non-scientific piece.
So, I think the Iowa State professors were wrong in the statement that “claims of religious faith [are] not within the scope or abilities of science”. Additionally, in that statement, they talk about “adherence to methodological naturalism” – that only naturalistic explanations are accepted in science. I believe in the possibility of explanations that are on the “edge” of science – we can tell that something is there, but you can’t explain it scientifically/naturalistically. In that case, you have an “edge” that is considered “science” and you can say that supernatural explanations lie across the boundary, but that those explanations (while admitting they exist) are not scientific explanations – anymore than describing, say, the normal flow of electricity requires a “supernatural” explanation.
Of course, I can understand the need to adhere to naturalistic explanations – without it, people may attempt to explain this or that feature of the natural world with supernatural explanations, when a perfectly good (undiscovered) naturalistic one exists. Erring on the side of supernatural explanations can stop science from progressing. (e.g. “Why do the planets move the way they do? It’s like a giant clock created by God to show us that He loves order.”, “Why do people get sick? Demons.”) On the other hand, always erring on the side of “must have a natural explanation” means missing what could potentially be evidence for a supernatural designer.
Regarding “Intelligent Design”, they have attempted to use the “adherence to methodological naturalism” for propaganda purposes. They say scientists have unfairly excluded the possibility of a designer, and that presupposition means that everyone completely ignores the evidence for a designer even when it is right under their noses. (Yes, I’ve actually heard IDists make this argument.) IDists overplay this idea for the purpose of propaganda. I don’t have any philosophical ideas that ID should be excluded from consideration. My problem is with other pieces of the ID movement and their evidence (or lack of).
This would be a good place to transition into what I think is actually wrong with the ID movement and ID claims. In short: they’re an ideological-religious program, downplay or are ignorant of evolutionary mechanisms, have a history of making false statements, appeal to inaccurate analogies, play-up their “victimization” to garner sympathy, and try to sidestep scientific scrutiny by preaching directly to the public – to name a few. Unfortunately, to fully tackle that topic requires a whole new article.