Swamidass vs. Nelson – trying to find a “Common Narrative with ID on MN”?

I’ll intervene on this conversation started by S. Joshua Swamidass as my guess is he’s going to mangle terms & then claim mastery over them, as he has done in the past on the topic of ‘methodological naturalism’ (MN). Paul Nelson (of micro-/macro- distinction) has posted here in the past & has done a fine job of staying more neutral, scholarly and welcoming to discussion than most IDists at the DI. It would be welcome for Nelson to clarify, re-iterate or to add any points here that Swamidass might not wish to address at PS, or in case the naive scientism cum MN lobby grows too loud there.

This is one of those topics where in my view Swamidass scores quite low in credibility and coherency (much like I score in biology! = P). This makes sense because he has little training and doesn’t seem to have done much personal reading in philosophy, social sciences or humanities. Paul Nelson, on the other hand, did a PhD in the philosophy of biology. So if Swamidass starts to try to out-philosophize Nelson, things could get hilarious quickly, as they have in the past, e.g. with Jonathan Burke, who discovered predecessors to GA -> GAE that Swamidass missed & had to add at the last minute.

Let’s see if Swamidass is ready to learn if the term ‘methodological naturalism’ is really a sword he wants to fall on or not. So far, it has been. Nelson, as do I, rejects MNism, & not just as a misnomer.

In the highlighted thread, we see Swamidass ask Nelson for clarification on a topic that Swamidass has obviously done a little bit of armchair talk with buddies about, but hasn’t actually got into the main course yet. Swamidass insists, “For the record, I think MN is legitimate, but that debate is a separate issue.”

Swamidass keeps repeating the same clumsy and imprecise language, then insisting there is nothing to debate about it. He continues to use a word duo (M+N) that he says he thinks is ‘wrong,’ yet without making any attempt to get beyond it. Why not? If he has to hear it 20 times before he understands it, then despite his proficiency in biology & computation, that might be what he needs in order to learn in other fields, such as philosophy. MN is not simply ‘legitimate’ or ‘illegitimate;’ it is rather an expression of ideology about the way (natural) science is done, i.e. its methods. That Swamidass doesn’t realise the inherent bias in the way he is framing the conversation explains much about why people communicating about ‘origins’ topics don’t understand each other.

The reasons Swamidass won’t debate are because, 1. He doesn’t have an original place to stand that was not already taken first by others who likely know the field better than he does, 2. Debate for Swamidass seems always to quickly turn into a kind of non-mainline Christian evangelical apologetics, similar to the BioLogos model, at least how he frames his ‘Empty Chair Confessional’ scenario, as if he were the Science Pope. And when you can’t evangelize evangelcalism to your opponent, or claim A&E as your own in front of them, then the game is up, and, 3. He’s trying to promote peace when there is no peace, using inciting arguments (re: MN) & doing so while flying the confessional banner of the very community that has been among the most protesting & agitating & stubborn & backward (consistent biblical literalistic bigotry & anti-science misunderstanding) in the conversation. And yet he hasn’t yet issued a word of apology for even the METHOD he is using, which comes right out of the same fundamentalist-creationist playbook that caused the problems in the first place and which in his own way, he exacerbates even while ‘scientifically’ preaching peace.

Mature catholic and orthodox Abrahamic monotheists have no need for the highly ideological, scientistic ‘peace’ that Swamidass would sell them on the way down the road to further separation of theology/worldview & human life.

“1. Using God as an explanation is disallowed by MN in scientific work.”

Technically speaking, that comes closer to ‘methodological anti-supernaturalism’ (ASN) than to promoting a naturalism-only approach to methods used in natural sciences. The latter would require a positive signification that Joshue doesn’t adequately provide, which is why the DI produces books like “The Nature of Nature.” It is difficult to figure why Joshua doesn’t understand that MASN does not = MN. Yet he keeps repeating it. One could write it down to a kind of narrow thinking required to ‘do biology’ that may make it difficult to explore other fields of thought respectfully and on their own terms, & thus to try to better understand than just dictating standard-fare (most often, but not always, atheism-driven) MN to philosophers.

Anti-supernaturalism is a different position from pro-naturalism. Methodological naturalism is still a type of naturalism. Swamidass can’t seem to come to grips with or allow his own English language to reflect this in his thoughts. So instead he might pause to ask why philosophers, not to mention social scientists and humanities scholars rather widely, reject the ideology that Swamidass thinks he is defending by simply calling it ‘good science’. We don’t want Swamidass’ naturalistic ideology hidden behind the term ‘methodological,’ yet Swamidass insists we must accept it or be negatively counted.

Sorry Swamidass, ideology is not just automatically ‘good science’ because a PhD in biological computation with a medical degree says it is & encourages others on a soapbox to echo him.

2. Wrong based on answer to 1.

“3. The idea was to discuss an intelligent designer rather than God, design rather than creation, and remove references to Scripture. In fact this was all an attempt to abide by MN.” – Swamidass

How can Swamidass get this so wrong? Is it because he is fixated on MN as a personal ideology he holds as a natural scientist? I have asked Joshua in the past to clearly articulate what a non-naturalist natural scientist looks like & he has avoided answering as if a plague were chasing him. In other words, in his ideological incoherence, he claims both to reject naturalism & accept naturalism at the same time. And now having been caught doing this, doesn’t wish for it to be pointed out. It would be better if Swamidass could learn his error openly & move forward with a clearer message. I believe Paul Nelson could help him do this.

First, it’s an Intelligent Designer, capitalized, if one has a proper sense of Divine Names. C’mon, Paul, don’t just peter out on this – take it head-on! Yes, the DI won’t talk about the Intelligent Designer as part of the ‘theory,’ which is rather minimalist in the end anyway, definitely not a ‘design revolution’. IDism in short: information, therefore mind & therefore a better chance of divine Creation than according to an atheist worldview. Apologetics. Yet Swamidass doesn’t seem to realize how using & promoting the ideology of MN, actually furthers the atheism he somewhat vaguely claims he is against. And the problem is that he can’t just up his science-talk in giving an answer to this because it is not a ‘strictly scientific’ observation or problem he is facing. Pushing harder the wrong way isn’t a good choice. So, when Swamidass gets off his high Science horse, we may actually be able to have a better conversation that takes the ideology of MN more seriously than Swamidass currently does, perhaps just because he can’t see the other side.

4. Facepalm.

“5. Consequently there has been a shift in ID. Rather than work within MN, more and more ID proponents want to get rid of MN in questions of origins.”

No, IDists have been consistently anti-MN since the beginning of the Movement. I’ve been following it since @2002. “In questions of origins,” one of the problems is the scientistic attitude Swamidass brings to the table in contrast with Nelson. Then Swamidass has the gall to ask: “How would you rewrite your narrative in a way that could be common to us?”

I realise the guy deserves some slack, but how about Swamidass making an attempt to rewrite his non-mainline ‘narrative’ in a way that doesn’t particularly privilege the ideology that he holds in the conversation? It would be more productive to instead open up the conversation even to people who patiently, consistently & faithfully reject the scientistic ideology of MN. If Swamidass is unwilling to even consider that it is he who might be misperceiving things, perhaps due to his philosophical immaturity & loose use of concepts & terms, progress with Nelson might indeed take place, which could be good for the future of ‘the conversation.’

One of Nelson’s flaws, of course, is his trust in the work of Stephen C. Meyer, whose definition of ‘history’ leaves more than a lot to be desired. I was quite surprised at what I discovered at Cambridge where Meyer wrote his dissertation & don’t think they appreciate being linked as Meyer & the DI likes to advertise. Let’s leave Meyer out of this & listen to what Nelson has to say.

I’d pick Nelson over Swamidass when it comes to MN. And of course Steve Fuller has gone perhaps even further than Steve Dilley, who Nelson recommended to Swamidass, in exposing MN. Whether or not Nelson can finally get through to Joshua on this topic is another issue. Sometimes more attempts is all it takes.

Nelson wrote that: “MN is the current dividing line because the ID community is united by the bare proposition that “intelligent design is empirically detectable in nature.” In order for design to be detectable, of course, it must have some observational or empirical content which does not reduce ultimately to physics. That’s intelligence as a distinct cause, issuing in distinct effects. MN forbids appeals to intelligence (i.e., as a basic or fundamental constituent of reality). There’s the conflict.”

Here’s where Nelson starts to go off the rails. 1) It’s Intelligent Design, not intelligent design’. The detectability of divine Intelligence, as Phillip Johnson & Charles Thaxton, along with Olsen & Bradley believed & believe. 2) Design is already ‘detectable’, but it is not the end goal simply to ‘detect’ some kind of thing (ontology). Rather, IDism is about implications, the implication of a Mind beyond matter. Good natural science and social science can & do already “appeal to intelligence”. I was speaking with a design theorist & reading a design thinking paper recently. But that’s not ‘Intelligent Design Theory’ and never will be. 3) Science is not a ‘forbidding’ field or discipline. Nelson himself couldn’t see a coherent, clear, valuable ‘Intelligent Design Theory’ even recently, in his own words. The IDists simply have provided no strictly scientific evidence of the instantiation of what they call ‘Intelligent Design’ and instead depend on probabilism & sciency apologetics, the latter much like the earlier ‘creationist’ movements.

So, in the end Swamidass is right about at least this: “The issue is divine intelligence, and the attempt to recognize design without considering the designer (neither approach works in science).” Biology differs considerably from theology & theological biology isn’t welcome; it’s intentionally schismatic. Yet Swamidass is otherwise wrong to suggest that ‘science’ is & only ever can be ‘naturalistic,’ so it’s a rather small & narrow view he is espousing, in the name of Science.

At least S. Joshua Swamidass might learn the difference between philosophy and ideology from Nelson in this conversation. He may then come to realize he’s been foisting a figment of his own imagination that needn’t have been constructed. Then again, he may just shrink back into typical disciplinary language that wreaks of natural scientism, ideological naturalism, biologism & reductionism again. Whatever he does, because I’m calling him out on it here and he doesn’t like being called out away from PS, Joshua will likely deny it all or just ignore it in public because he can’t seem to figure any other way out of the philosophical corner he’s pained himself into than to blame the messenger. Sad to see such an ethically-challenged scientist.

Properly understood, ‘methodological naturalism’ denotes ideology, not ‘good science.’ If Nelson would go further than he has in the past and acknowledge this, a different, likely better conversation would open up. The problem is that Swamidass hasn’t yet shown he’s ready to travel that road. Maybe Nelson will help him get there towards meeting next year with his former ‘hero’ (as Swamidass once briefly called) Behe.

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462 thoughts on “Swamidass vs. Nelson – trying to find a “Common Narrative with ID on MN”?

  1. keiths:
    dazz,

    What you’re missing is that not all free will proponents are dualists.

    Believers in naturalistic free will are unperturbed by the fact that decisions originate in the brain.

    Yeah, well. I was referring to libertarian free will. Should have been more specific there

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  2. dazz: That was a fascinating read, but is it really something the free-will supporters should cheer about?

    I believe it is more about whether we consciouslymake decisions associated with the exercise of free wiill. That possibility fits better with compatibilism.

    I don’t think there is much chance of libertarian free will being supported by science. But Kane gave it a good try by appealing to quantum events in a way that did not make the error about trying to use randomness for free will. Dennett debunks Kane’s ideas in Elbow Room but it takes him a whole chapter as I recall.

    (I’m not sure if Kane would agree with his approach being called libertarian).

    Those that believe free will is non-physical can appeal to correlation is not cause arguments, I think, to say that the brain states are merely correlated with the non-physical mind’s exercise of free will. Dealing with the interaction problem that then arises would nothing new for them.

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  3. BruceS: I believe it is more about whether we consciouslymake decisions associated with the exercise of free wiill. That possibility fits better with compatibilism.

    I see, thanks Bruce. But if the experiment really shows that what we believe were conscious decisions, were nothing more than our reaction to peaks in background noise of neural activity, does that mean that, at least in this case, there was no act of free will of any kind at all?

    BruceS: I don’t think there is much chance of libertarian free will being supported by science. But Kane gave it a good try by appealing to quantum events in a way that did not make the error about trying to use randomness for free will. Dennett debunks Kane’s ideas in Elbow Room but it takes him a whole chapter as I recall.

    I’ll look it up, thanks again

    BruceS: Those that believe free will is non-physical can appeal to correlation is not cause arguments, I think, to say that the brain states are merely correlated with the non-physical mind’s exercise of free will. Dealing with the interaction problem that then arises would nothing new for them.

    Yeah, of course, I didn’t think of that

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  4. dazz: But if the experiment really shows that what we believe were conscious decisions, were nothing more than our reaction to peaks in background noise of neural activity, does that mean that, at least in this case, there was no act of free will of any kind at all?

    On second thought, the background noise is not necessarily deterministic, in which case, free will of the compatibilistic kind would not be off of the table, right?

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  5. dazz,

    On second thought, the background noise is not necessarily deterministic, in which case, free will of the compatibilistic kind would not be off of the table, right?

    Compatibilism is the view that free will is compatible with determinism, so it does not require that the noise be non-deterministic. Compatibilist free will remains on the table either way.

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  6. I have a theory that any operational definition of free will or determinism will be unacceptable to anyone who takes either side.

    1+
  7. keiths:
    dazz,

    Compatibilism is the view that free will is compatible with determinism, so it does not require that the noise be non-deterministic.Compatibilist free will remains on the table either way.

    Ouch, I actually (sort of didn’t) knew that. Thanks

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  8. BruceS,

    I haven’t delved too deeply into it yet, but it appears to me that the paper by Jacobo Sitt and Stanislas Dehaene is saying that it is the flow of background noise in sort of a wave pattern causing the random decisions. But surely any of the participants could have chosen to rapid fire their finger, or to tap their finger in the beat of their favorite song. That would have been the participants “choice” to use that pattern right. Are we to believe that kind of choice is based on random background wave noise patterns. That doesn’t seem to make much sense.

    But I will read on more later.

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  9. phoodoo: Are we to believe that kind of choice is based on random background wave noise patterns

    I am not sure what you mean by “background”. I think the noise referred to is the random ongoing neural electrochemical activity in the brain.

    As I understand the Libet protocol, the subject is told to tap “when the urge strikes you”. If someone was tapping regularly, perhaps the experimenters would have noticed that and excluded the results or re-instructed the subject. But I am just guessing on that.

    ETA: Exercising free will assumes the behavior involved is voluntary. If one taps along to the beat of music, then only the initial choice to do so would be voluntary, not the taps themselves. So that is why Libet might have been suspicious of regular taps.

    Mele pointed out that Libet’s experimental protocol may not be relevant for situations that we would call exercise of free will, but Mele’s argument was based mainly on everyday understanding of free will (eg it should involve an issue of consequence to the subject somehow).

    The new work questions whether the RP works as Libet experiments assume it does so it questions the extrapolation from RP timing to free will for scientific reasons.

    I linked an article in Sandbox I suspect you will enjoy.

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  10. Gregory seems to have moved on, but in the spirit of his posts, here is a thoughtful discussion on the role of neo-liberal capitalist ideology in re-shaping Buddhist mindfulness to make it play a role in North American corporations and society.

    There is also a small discussion at the end of whether mindfulness training belongs in a secular school system, given its Buddhist origins.

    https://newbooksnetwork.com/ronald-e-purser-mcmindfulness-how-mindfulness-became-the-new-capitalist-spirituality-repeater-books-2019/

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  11. BruceS: Gregory seems to have moved on, but in the spirit of his posts, here is a thoughtful discussion on the role of neo-liberal capitalist ideology in re-shaping Buddhist mindfulness to make it play a role in North American corporations and society.

    There is also a small discussion at the end of whether mindfulness training belongs in a secular school system, given its Buddhist origins.

    I’ve been following this story as well — really quite fascinating and troubling for me in light of both my background in critical theory (esp the social criticism of neoliberal capitalism) and Buddhist philosophy of mind in relation to cognitive neuroscience.

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