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Inferring the Supernatural: Forrest v. Beckwith

Barbara Forrest’s “The non-epistemology of intelligent design: its implications for public policy”1 [1] is at the center of what has been dubbed “The Synthese Affair [2]“. The bulk of her paper is a sustained and often dismissive account of Francis Beckwith’s arguments in support of Intelligent Design. Although I think Forrest’s attacks constitute a relatively minor transgression of academic norms, I find myself perplexed by some (though by no means all, or even many) of her substantive arguments. I will be teaching a unit on Intelligent Design for an undergraduate course this year, so the purpose of this post is to sort out my ideas on some issues. I would greatly appreciate feedback.

Given the poor reception by philosophers of Michael Ruse’s simplistic demarcation criteria in the 1981 McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education trial,2 [3] prosecutors in the 2005 Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District case, under advisement from philosopher Robert T. Pennock, focused on methodological naturalism as a key criterion for scientific practice.3 [4] Pennock’s argument for excluding supernatural explanations from science is compelling. If, he argues, supernatural explanations were permitted within science, we would lose all solid ground for empirical testing. For example, he created a computer simulation of evolution that produced what appear to be “irreducibly complex” features that nevertheless evolved in a gradualistic fashion. This seems to refute the claims of Michael Behe that such a result is impossible without supernatural intervention.4 [5] But, Pennock observed, what if a supernatural power had intervened in his computer simulation to produce those results? If Behe can argue this for biological evolution, what is to stop him from arguing this of computer simulated evolution?

This is a powerful argument, but I’m unsure of its scope. Does it disqualify all inferences to the supernatural, or just the use of the supernatural in particular explanatory contexts? Particularly, does it just point to a problem in positive arguments for the supernatural, or does it also prohibit negative inferences of the sort:

  1. According to our understanding of natural laws, X is impossible.
  2. X occurred.
  3. Either our understanding of natural laws is incomplete, or X is due to a supernatural cause.
  4. We have good reason to believe that our understanding of natural laws is sufficiently complete to confidently rule out X.
  5. There is good reason to believe that X is due to a supernatural cause.

This is the kind of argument offered by Beckwith.5 [6] He uses the example of Jesus’s resurrection. Adapting it to the above scheme:

  1. As far as we know, the Biblical account of Jesus’s resurrection is impossible according to natural laws.
  2. It did occur (according to Beckwith).
  3. Either there is a naturalistic method of resurrection that was used by Jesus that we have not discovered, or his resurrection was due to a supernatural cause.
  4. It seems unlikely that science will ever produce a naturalistic explanation for the resurrection.
  5. There is good reason to believe that the resurrection was due to a supernatural cause.

Forrest rightly takes issue with premise (2), invoking Bart D. Ehrman’s testimony that early Christians constructing the Bible themselves argued over whether the resurrection occurred.6 [7] She also attacks (4), noting that science has a long track record of producing explanations for occurrences that previously seemed unexplainable.7 [8] This is my first hesitation. It seems to me that, as science is able to explain more and more phenomena, those phenomena that it is unable to explain might actually become more compelling evidence for the supernatural. Forrest uses an inductive argument to claim that, because in the past science has succeeded in producing explanations for phenomena that appeared unexplainable, in the future it will continue to do so. Why cannot I just as convincingly argue that because science has failed to produce an explanation for phenomenon X, it will continue to fail to produce an explanation for it?

Further, it seems that we can make an educated distinction between phenomena that are merely “unsolved problems” for science that will eventually be explained and those for which science will never produce an explanation. For example, it seems scientists don’t know (or at some point didn’t know) how bees gain enough lift from their wings to fly,8 [9] but this isn’t taken to be evidence that bees invoke supernatural forces to get off the ground. Rather there is something about, perhaps, aerodynamics at small scales that we haven’t fully understood. However, if I were to instantaneously teleport myself across the country, we might think that science will never produce an explanation for how I did it.

More vexingly, Forrest disputes the validity of the entire argument:

But the only thing to which the believer in miracles can ulti- mately appeal—again—is the supernatural; thus, the theist who invokes miracles also invokes the supernatural being that produced the miracle. This is a factual claim for which evidence is warranted, but the supernatural nature of which makes evidence impossible to obtain.9 [10]

Forrest is arguing here that, even if we could convincingly argue all of the above factual premises, we could not infer the supernatural without positive evidence. Since the supernatural is de facto beyond observation, there can never be such evidence. So we can never infer the supernatural. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding the argument here, but really? Doesn’t this disqualify claims for all unobservable entities? Forrest might be correct that ID supporters are unjustified in their inference from miracles to a particular God, and Forrest’s paper does a good job of showing that, despite their official claims to the contrary, ID supporters do take their arguments as arguments for the christian God, but it seems to me that you could justifiably infer that there is some supernatural force responsible for an otherwise unexplainable phenomena.

I’d really appreciate any discussion or clarification on these issues. Thanks!

  1. Forrest, B. 2011. “The non-epistemology of intelligent design: its implications for public policy.” Synthese. [11]
  2. Lynch, M. 2006. “From ruse to farce.” Social Studies of Science 36 (6): 819–826. [12]
  3. Pennock, RT. 2011. “Can’t philosophers tell the difference between science and religion?: Demarcation revisited.” Synthese (January). [13]
  4. Behe, Michael J. 2006. Darwin’s Black Box. The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Free Press. [14]
  5. Forrest, p. 356-57 [15]
  6. Ehrman, B. D. (2003). Lost scriptures: Books that did not make it into the New Testament. New York: Oxford University Press. From Forrest, p. 364. [16]
  7. Forrest, p. 359 [17]
  8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bumble_bee [18] [19]
  9. Forrest, p. 359 [20]