Knowing the Truth: An Interview with Stephen Meyer

Stephen C. Meyer
Friday, June 30th 2017
Jul/Aug 2017

In his Essays, Civil, and Moral, Sir Francis Bacon wrote that the difficulty with lies is not just that truth requires hard work, or that it (truth) inconveniently imposes itself by obliging us to submit to it, but that we love lies themselves. With a glut of information at our fingertips and “credible sources” for everything, from the man-on-the-moon conspiracy to a rare Costa Rican fruit that will shrink your waistline, Pilate’s question can seem less like an evasion and more like honest bewilderment. What is true? What is real? How can we know?

We spoke with Dr. Stephen Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle, Washington, about the difference between scientific and religious knowledge, human agency in the method of philosophical inquiry, and how to spot “fake news.”

MR: You’ve said that a person’s definition of science largely determines what is and what is not considered scientific knowledge. Would you elaborate on that?

SM: This question of the definition of science comes up in the debate about biological origins, cosmological origins, and also in the debate about the nature of the human person (what’s called in the philosophy of mind, the mind-body discussion). If someone defines science as a strictly materialistic enterprise—that the only theories that can be rightly considered are the theories that invoke materialistic causal entities—then they necessarily limit the possible range of explanatory hypotheses.

For example, if you’re trying to explain human behavior, and you limit yourself to a materialistic definition of science (and by the way, that definition has a name; it’s called methodological naturalism) to be scientific, you must limit yourself to explanations that invoke only naturalistic or materialistic entities. If you decide in advance that human behavior must be explained only by materialistic entities, then you’re going to be limited to explaining all behavior by reference to genes, environments, neuro-physiological impulses or chemistry in the brain; in other words, some form of naturalism or materialism.

Alternatively, if you accept that there exists something like a mind or a soul, or that persons have the freedom to choose and initiate new lines of cause and effect on the basis of their singular choices, then your explanations of behavior may be very different. You may be willing to consider the role of human agency as a real thing and look to the reasons people have for acting the way they do, or character traits that incline them to act a certain way. You won’t limit yourself to simply genes and environment; that question of what you allow as a possible explanation is closely related to the question of the definition of science, because people have very often defined science according to what kinds of explanations or theories they will consider. Methodological naturalism in particular has said that we will consider as scientific only those explanations that are materialistic in character.

MR: It sounds like the scientific methodology is driven by metaphysical and philosophical considerations, as well as a desire to quantify natural phenomena. Is that somewhat accurate?

SM: It really depends on the time or historical period we’re talking about and the particular scientists involved. We’re currently in a significant debate about the origin of life (which encompasses the new forms of animal and plant life, as well as the history of life and the debate about Darwinian evolution and chemical evolution). Those of us who are part of the intelligent design research community are arguing that there are certain features of biological systems that are best explained by reference to the action of a designing intelligence, by reference to a mind, not strictly a material process. That postulation—the design hypothesis—runs directly afoul of the convention that has largely governed science since the late nineteenth century: the idea that to be scientific, we must limit ourselves to strictly materialistic explanations.

Our critique of that convention is twofold. The first one is that it is historically contingent; it has not always been part of science. During the period of the scientific revolution, many early modern scientists not only presupposed that nature was intelligible because they thought it had been designed by a rational mind—namely, God—but they also thought they were seeing evidence of design in nature. You see this in the works of Kepler, Newton, Robert Boyle, and others. During that period of time, the design hypothesis was a perfectly acceptable way to explain certain sorts of phenomena, particularly the causal origins of the delicate balance of the solar system, or the origin of the universe, or the origin of various forms of life. After Darwin, during the late nineteenth century, that began to change. So methodological naturalism is not a given; it’s a rule that has been applied during some time periods of science, but not others.

Our second critique is that if you presuppose methodological naturalism as a normative rule for scientific practice, then you will necessarily exclude from consideration certain types of hypotheses that may be true. What the scientific community wants is not the best hypothesis of a predetermined kind (in this case, the best materialistic hypothesis); we want the best hypothesis, period: the one that is most likely to be true and can best explain the data. So if we’re looking at the evidence for an intelligent design and we presuppose that “intelligence” cannot be part of a scientific explanation, then we’re going to disregard crucial evidence; and we (those in intelligent design research) think that we are looking at such evidence.

One of the most striking features about biological systems that we’ve come to appreciate since the molecular biological revolution in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s is that biological systems, even the simplest living cells, contain information in a digital form inscribed along the spine of the DNA molecule. Now we know from experience that information invariably arises from intelligent agents, so an analogy I often use to explain the problem with methodological naturalism is this: Imagine you go into the British Museum, and you see the beautifully carved Rosetta Stone. You are asked, “How did those inscriptions arise?” If you’re committed to methodological naturalism or materialism, you’re going to say, “It must have been through some materialistic process. Maybe it was wind, maybe it was erosion…” It was anything but the actual explanation, which was that an intelligent scribe etched those markings in the rock and that the information they contain is the product of the mind of the person who did the etching.

That hypothesis would be excluded by methodological naturalism, and yet it ends up being the true hypothesis. Our concern about imposing that as a definition of science is that it’s not truth-friendly: it excludes from consideration some possibly true hypotheses; and in science, our highest obligation is to follow the evidence where it leads, to the most-likely-to-be true explanation. Our problem with methodological naturalism is that it prevents us from doing that, especially in these questions of origins and human nature.

MR: What, in your estimation, would constitute religious knowledge? How does it differ from scientific knowledge? We’ve discussed a bit about how different presuppositions and different a priori commitments inform scientific knowledge. Would you say the same thing could be said to apply to religious knowledge?

SM: Knowledge in the classical definition was actually equated with the word from which we get science, scientia. I think knowledge is knowledge; it’s the object of our knowledge that can be different. The object of religious knowledge is presumably God, his attributes and his moral commands (the latter would maybe be ethical knowledge). We now associate the word science with the natural sciences, so scientific knowledge is knowledge about the natural world or knowledge derived from the natural world. What’s really interesting is that knowledge we derive from the natural world (scientific knowledge, if you like) can actually be knowledge of God (religious knowledge); it can point us to a creator or a designing agent. So I think the attempt to demarcate the types of knowledge on anything other than subject matter is an artifact of an inadequate philosophy of science called logical positivism or neo-positivism, schools of thought that were dominant in philosophy in the early and middle part of the twentieth century. Increasingly, philosophers of sciences are realizing that it’s difficult to distinguish science from pseudo-science—or science from religion, or science from philosophy—on the basis of differences in rationality or rational method or methods of investigation. There’s a method of investigation I think is important but is often overlooked in science called inference to the best explanation, or the method of multiple competing hypotheses.

When I was first studying this method and observing the way in which Darwin used it in the Origin of Species, I had the sense that I had encountered this method of reasoning before. Then I realized it was actually in some of the presuppositional apologetic work of the Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer. I realized that some of the same methods are used in the philosophy of religion, as well as in historical science or theoretical physics. So I don’t think there’s a hard and fast distinction between different kinds of knowledge that can be based solely on methodology. I think reason can be applied to many different questions—questions about the reality of God, the nature of nature, or the laws of nature. There are different types of inferences (deductive, abductive, inductive), but some of the same forms of reasoning that are used to investigate, for example, biological or cosmological origins can also be used to investigate the reality of God. I think the inference to design that we make based on biological, physical, cosmological evidences may have implications that are friendly to theism as a worldview; that is to say, we may have scientific evidence that possibly implies the existence of God. I think the attempt to firmly compartmentalize different kinds of knowledge has largely failed in the philosophy of science, and I think it opens up the exciting possibility that nature may in fact provide us with the basis for a kind of theological knowledge—not exhaustive theological knowledge. As a Christian, I believe that general revelation doesn’t exhaust what we need to know about God. I believe that special revelation through Scripture is far more important, but I think we can know about God in different ways, and our knowledge is not confined to a special category that is distinct from empirically based scientific types of reasoning.

MR: In your paper “A Scientific History and Philosophical Defense: The Theory of Intelligent Design,” you wrote that historical scientists can make inferences about the past with confidence when they discover evidence or artifacts for which there is only one cause known to be capable of producing. How similar is this method to the method of historians and archaeologists attempting to establish the historical facticity of an event with significant religious implications, like the resurrection? How much does the way in which we try to establish the truth or falsehood of something influence our ability to acknowledge it as true or false?

SM: First, it’s interesting that I was just talking about the method of inference to the best explanation. William Lane Craig, who did a second PhD under the famous German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, wrote a magisterial thesis (perhaps the first one in English in modern times) defending the historicity of the resurrection, and he did so by deliberately using the method of inference to the best explanation. How you judge Craig’s case will depend on how you read it and sense how he evaluated the evidence. But I think his use of that method underscores the point I was just making: that there’s no principal difference between religious knowledge and scientific knowledge that can be made on the basis of methods of reasoning. Most of the attempts to demarcate science from non-science, from pseudoscience, from philosophy, from religion, have been made on the basis of characterizations of “the scientific method.”

One of the points I showed in my own PhD work was that there is not one scientific method; there are several. One common method that is used in many different types of sciences—namely, inference to the best explanation—is also used by detectives, lawyers, philosophers, philosophers of religion, and theologians. This method of reasoning is something used quite widely by rational human beings, even in a pre-theoretic context. People who aren’t trained as lawyers, detectives, or scientists use this because it’s part of the rational endowment that we humans have. That’s a lot of what I’ve done in my work in philosophy of science, as well as in my arguments for intelligent design as the best explanation for the origin of the digital information that built the first living cell.

MR: How much, then, would you say the way in which we try to establish the truth or falsehood of something influences our ability to acknowledge it, and to what extent do you think humans determine what is or isn’t true based on what they want to be true? How much does human agency inform our capacity to grant or withhold assent to the veracity of something?

SM: This is a deep question, and there are many facets to assessing the relationship between evidence and conclusion or hypothesis and explanation. Philosophers of science have pointed out that our background knowledge will often play a big role in assessing the plausibility of a hypothesis. What we think we know, for example, about the cause-and-effect structure of the world may determine a lot about how we assess which hypothesis might be the best one for a given class of evidence. So our background knowledge, which can be entirely true or partially true due to some false assumptions, can influence our assessment. There is a kind of iterative or reflexive relationship between the evidence that we encounter in the world and the way in which we explain it and our background knowledge. As we learn more and attempt to become more and more rational people in our evaluation of the world, each of those things might in turn influence the other. So if I have some false background knowledge and I come to a hypothesis based on that, I may then later encounter some evidence that convinces me to adjust my background knowledge and realize that I was making some assumptions that weren’t justified, and that may in turn cause me to rethink the conclusion I came to about a particular question. So we see there is a kind of iterative aspect to human rationality.

This plays itself out, interestingly, in Christian apologetics. There has been a longstanding debate among Christians about whether or not we should use evidentially based arguments or presuppositional arguments in defending the historic faith. I actually think that is something of a false dichotomy. There can be a difference in emphasis, but from the standpoint of the structure of reasoning, there isn’t a principal difference between starting with a set of presuppositions and then justifying them on the basis of their supposedly superior explanatory power, and starting with a body of evidence we can observe in the natural world or even in our own cognitive structures—or, on the other hand, starting with some body of evidence and asking, “Based on what we know, what best explains this?” I think the difference between evidential and presuppositional argumentation in service of the Christian faith is largely a distinction in our starting point. Do we infer the explanations and then argue for them on the basis of their explanatory power? Or do we start with explanations and presuppositions, and then go out and look at the world and say, “These presuppositions explain the world better than this other set of presuppositions”? In both cases, both presuppositional and evidential apologists often use the same method of reasoning—the inference to the best explanation.

MR: So both evidentialists and presuppositionalists say, “There is some sort of postulate I want to establish.” Then they either work toward that based on what they see, or they try to establish that based off of what they’ve presupposed.

SM: What the presuppositional apologists do is this: they start with the postulate, and then they go out and look at the world, starting with the assumption that God exists. Right away they’re not using standard deductive forms of reasoning. They say, “I can’t prove that, but on the basis of this assumption, I can show that all these things we presuppose make better sense when we start with a presupposition of theism than they do when we start with a presupposition of materialism or pantheism or some other metaphysical system you could regard as an explanation.” So they start with the explanation, and then they go and look at the world, and it makes a lot more sense in light of that initial presupposition. Therefore, they hold it as the most rational thing to believe, because they can live consistently with their belief and their beliefs about the world and their presuppositions about the ultimate source of the world. So that’s one way of reasoning.

Evidentialists will say, “I’m going to go look at the world—I see that DNA has lots of information in it, or the universe had a beginning, or humans have an innate moral sense,” and so on. Then they’re going to find what explains that observation best. They (those Christian apologists who agree that God provides the best explanation) end up in the same place. What’s really different is the starting point in the investigation. But I think as you examine the method of reasoning and what gives the conclusions warrant or justification is precisely the explanatory power of the postulates, whether you start with them or infer to them.

MR: There has been a great deal of discussion lately about “alternative facts” and “fake news.” What principles should Christians use when they want to assess the reliability of the information that’s being given to them or the evidence that’s being offered in support of the information being given to them, whether it’s to do with politics, the economy, social change, or whatever it may be?

SM: I think just having multiple sources of information by which to check is helpful. The standard of two or more witnesses is a good guide. Oftentimes, I detect bias in reporting not so much by the facts that are reported but by the facts that are left out—the selective omission of other facts that might put the reported facts in proper context. That’s one thing I’ve found helpful. Consider the source first; it’s good to know the bias of the source. Then the second principle would be to check the source. What else can be known? Oftentimes, those “alternative facts” that aren’t being reported aren’t disputed, they’re just being ignored. So that tends to give us a fuller picture, and we move back to inference to the best explanation.

This method of reasoning is tentative and provisional, based on the facts at hand. If you get more facts, more data points, then often a different hypothesis will appear to be the better one, so we need to always be open to new sources of information. Our sources need to be checked and cross-checked to get to the bottom of things. One example that’s particularly important to my own work is the whole question of consensus in science. I often tell my colleagues that you know there isn’t a consensus when people have to appeal to consensus in order to prove that there is one. There is a consensus among chemists that water is composed of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. Nobody spends any time arguing about that, and no one appeals to consensus to get the point across. It’s really about contentious issues where consensus is invoked, and it’s usually invoked to shut down dissent, which shows there isn’t a consensus.

For example, when we hear a discussion on human-caused global warming, we’re told over and over again that there’s a consensus on this. Well, there’s a website by a scientist in Oregon where he has compiled over thirty thousand signatures of scientists who have expressed public dissent from the hypothesis that humans are causing climate change or global warming. Now, that’s a lot of scientists; that’s hardly a consensus. Some of the names on that list are prominent people such as Dick Lindzen, a climate scientist at MIT, or William Happer at Princeton.

When I hear claims about consensus in science, my radar flashes and I want to find out the other side of the argument. Science advances as scientists argue about how to interpret the evidence, so that process of argumentation is critical to both the development and function of scientific understanding and inquiry. When that’s shut down by an appeal to an alleged consensus, then usually the people making that kind of appeal are guilty of a profoundly anti-scientific approach.

Science depends on this open form of inquiry that allows iron to sharpen iron, competing hypotheses to be tested against other competing hypotheses in the marketplace of ideas and contend for their interpretation in a community of their peers to see which one does in fact best explain the evidence. This is critical to finding the truth. One of my supervisors at Cambridge told me in my first year, “Beware the sound of one hand clapping.” If there’s an argument on one side, it’s pretty certain there’s an argument on the other side. When you’ve heard one side of the argument, be sure you hear the other side as well before you determine which one is correct, because it’s that process of argumentation that is an integral part of human reason that allows us to move toward the truth. If we shut that down by appeals to consensus or dogma, then we’re less likely to get to the truth. That’s what makes it important in evaluating the news as well: you want to hear the other side of the argument, because when you do, you’re in a better position to assess what the truth really is.

Stephen C. Meyer (PhD, Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge) is a former geophysicist and college professor. He is the author of the New York Times best-seller Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2013) and Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2009).

Friday, June 30th 2017

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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