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Saturday, November 1, 2008

On Junk Philosophy and Naturalism: A Criticism of Robert A. Delfino

I recently read a paper by Robert A. Delfino, “Replacing Methodological Naturalism,” and the only logical conclusion I've come to is that the author (an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University) is a junk philosopher.

It is telling that Delfino’s paper was not published in an academic philosophy journal, but rather in “The Global Spiral,” a publication of the Metanexus Institute, which calls itself “a global interdisciplinary group.” What that apparently means is that they analyze a variety of disciplines from religious perspectives, and promote the injection of religious views into all disciplines as much as possible. I am not sure if they are in any way associated with the infamous Discovery Institute, but they are funded by the Templeton Foundation. Based on what I've seen, their standards of intellectual integrity are highly questionable. My goal here is not to criticize the Metanexus Institute, however, but to criticize Robert A. Delfino and to defend naturalism.


In philosophical discussions, it is crucial that we be clear about how we are using controversial terms. A serious philosopher will not make a formal argument, or even allow himself to get too deep into a discussion of a topic, without being sure that all of the key terms are clearly defined. The definitions at hand may be working definitions and therefore subject to revision; but at least there is some definition on offer which should help us overcome any conceptual confusion about the topic.

Delfino fails to define his key terms. He assumes that every reader will know what he means when he talks about “the supernatural.” As a professional philosopher, Delfino should have known that this term is controversial. In fact, many proponents of naturalism have argued that the notion of the supernatural is incoherent.

While Delfino does make an effort to define “naturalism,” he does so only in opposition to “supernaturalism.” He writes, "Naturalism is a metaphysical view that denies the existence of supernatural entities. Usually this view amounts to a kind of materialism and therefore it denies the existence of non-material beings such as God." Since he does not explain what he means by “supernatural entities” or "non-material beings," his definition of “naturalism” is vacuous.

This failure is not minor. In fact, it undermines his entire argument.

Delfino’s argument is that naturalism is bad for science. He focuses on what is called "methodological naturalism." His claim is that methodological naturalism is dogmatic and that it is inconsistent with science as we know it.

Delfino's primary concern is that scientists unjustifiably exclude the supernatural from scientific discourse; however, he never says what the supernatural is. Apparently, we are supposed to assume that there is such a thing as a “the supernatural,” and that it is somehow different from the methodologies and principles we associate with naturalism. And yet, the dichotomy between natural and supernatural remains undefined.

The fact of the matter is, scientists and philosophers use the term “nature” to refer to whatever science may discover, without declaring ahead of time what sorts of entities or frameworks might be involved. Naturalism does not exclude any possible discoveries, nor does it exclude any possible frameworks for establishing new discoveries. Delfino is wrong to claim that naturalism (or methodological naturalism) uses dogma to limit the potential of scientific discovery.

Furthermore, since the term "natural" has a perfectly clear and legitimate usage in science and philosophy, and the term "supernatural" does not, it is safe to conclude that naturalism is the only tenable philosophical position here.

Like so many Christian apologists, Delfino is using the notion of the supernatural to create confusion, suggesting that there is (or at least could be) a legitimate scientific framework called “supernaturalism,” but failing to define what it is, or how it can be distinguished from naturalism. He thus claims that naturalists unfairly discriminate against supernaturalism, even though no evidence of any unfair discrimination has been offered.

Delfino’s Further Confusion Of The Term “Supernatural”

The term “supernatural” is traditionally defined to refer to entities which act on nature, but which are not defined as part of nature. How something can act on nature without being a part of nature is a mystery, since "nature" is used to refer to whatever acts in nature.

Nature is not defined to be anything in particular ahead of time, before scientific discoveries are made. And once they are made, they are called "nature." Thus, there is no sense in claiming that something could be discovered to act on nature without actually being a part of nature. Such a claim makes a mockery of the language.

The inability to conceive of what "outside of nature" might mean is often heralded as a point in favor of religious faith, when in fact it is damning evidence that supernaturalism is a bankrupt philosophy.

This is an uncomfortable state of semantic affairs for Christian apologists like Delfino. It is therefore unsurprising that he tries to avoid the problem by explicitly rejecting the traditional definition of "the supernatural." He does this by suggesting that we should be able to observe supernatural causes in nature, but through indirect means.

Remember that we still don't know what "supernatural causes" is supposed to mean. Also note that scientists do not make a strong distinction between direct and indirect observation. Much of what scientists talk about is observed indirectly.

To support his argument, Delfino quotes a man named Del Ratzsch, who says that, “although a supernatural being could obviously have untraceable effects on nature, surely it cannot be claimed that a supernatural being simply could not have traceable effects upon empirical matters.”

The problem here is, if something has traceable effects upon empirical matters, then why try to distinguish it from nature?

When we find traceable effects of something, we call it "natural." That's how the language works.

Delfino suggests that some of the things we observe indirectly may be supernatural, and not natural. However, he doesn't offer any way of understanding this distinction. If we adopted his reasoning, we would have to think that any indirect observation might be of a supernatural entity.

Perhaps quarks are really supernatural beings, and we’ve just mistaken them for natural entities. Perhaps gravity and electromagnetism are supernatural phenomena, and we've been wrongly classifying them as "natural" all this time. Since there's no clear line between direct and indirect observation, we have to wonder, what parts of nature aren't supernatural, according to Delfino?

Delfino doesn’t simply fail to define the term “supernatural.” Rather, he confounds the traditional definition of "supernatural" by suggesting it is indistinguishable from what scientists call "nature."

Junk Philosophy

Delfino seems to favor irrational deflection over rational argument, and misunderstanding over understanding. Philosophers should strive for clarity. Junk philosophers favor confusion.

I have a strong impression that Delfino does not understand science or reason as much as he should, considering his desire to publish articles about science and philosophy.

For the moment, let's leave aside his failure to define his key terms and let's ignore the fact that he has made a mockery of the language scientists use to talk about nature.

Consider his argument about testability. He says that naturalists have unfairly excluded God from the realm of scientific discovery, because they wrongly claim that science requires testability, which implies controllability. He writes: But, as Ratzsch remarks, by this logic we should also exclude things like supernovas and the Big Bang from science, since we cannot produce and control them in a lab.”

This reveals a profound ignorance about the nature of scientific discovery. Experiments which produce evidence of supernovas and the Big Bang are as controllable and repeatable as any other.

Next, consider Delfino’s statements about Intelligent Design. This is where his true colors shine. First, he says, “the creation of life in a lab would make the appeal to supernatural causation to explain life superfluous.” He continues to say that “intelligent design could be refuted in this way . . .”

As it happens, scientists are on the verge of creating life in a laboratory as I write this. But such experiments are not necessary to dismiss the incoherent notion of “supernatural causation.”

Delfino for some reason thinks that, until we have created a new life form from non-living matter, we must assume some "supernatural" cause was responsible for life on earth. The reason or evidence for this position? Who knows?

Delfino's misunderstanding of science does not end there. He also fails to understand the relationship between theory and opinion. He says that, “Darwinian evolution is irrefutable. This is because even if all of the currently known Darwinian mechanisms fail to account for the complexity of life Darwinists will merely respond that there must be some undiscovered mechanism that will eventually explain it. But why assume that?”

Delfino’s reasoning is thus: Even if Darwinian evolution is refuted, Darwinists won’t admit it. Therefore, it is not refutable.

Do I need to explain Delfino's equivocation here? His reasoning is not simply invalid; it is insulting to scientists.

Delfino piles on more absurdities by claiming that the supernatural is required to produce human freedom. He says, Free agents would have to be forces existing (at least partially) outside of the natural laws if they are to produce things that natural causes alone could not (such as a Boeing 747 jet aircraft).”

For Delfino, airplanes count as evidence of the supernatural.

It’s hard not to laugh.

Apparently, Delfino thinks that intelligence cannot be a natural phenomenon and that human intelligence thus cannot be the product of our brains. Do we need to document the evidence supporting the view that brains produce intelligent behavior? Do we need to point out that the idea of a soul which informs our behavior, but which is not a part of the natural world, is incoherent?

Delfino goes on say that naturalists have no basis for understanding human freedom or dignity, which may be the greatest testament to his ignorance. I suppose it is possible that he has grappled with the centuries of literature supporting a naturalistic view of freedom and feelings such as dignity, and that he has come to the rational conclusion that naturalism is fatally flawed. But I strongly suspect that he has not, and that he merely assumes freedom and dignity are supernatural phenomena.


Delfino ends his argument by promoting “interdisciplinary synthesis,” saying that if we just got rid of naturalism/materialism, then “members of diverse fields would be freer to engage in dialogue with science about various metaphysical possibilities.”

That's funny, because all the while it sounded like he was talking about scientific possibilities, not metaphysical ones. Maybe Delfino doesn't distinguish between science and metaphysics. Maybe all his talk about methodological naturalism was really all about metaphysical/philosophical naturalism.

In any case, he fails to make a coherent point here. Are members of any field currently unable to engage in dialogue with science? Of course not. As the publication of Delfino’s paper makes quite clear, even people who are not qualified to talk about science or logic are capable of finding an outlet for their nonsense.

Delfino probably made this comment because he wants to propagate the false idea that legitimate science is being done in the name of Intelligent Design, but that scientific journals are not publishing it because they are unjustly prejudiced against notions of the supernatural. He clearly hasn't a shred of evidence or logic to support this view. It's just posturing, and it's offensive to reason.

I have not enumerated every single problem I've found with Delfino’s paper. I don't see the need to nitpick over every detail. I think I've made a strong enough case that it is an intellectually dishonest attempt to tarnish the reputation of scientists and a dangerous attempt to further confusion and ignorance. If that doesn’t qualify Delfino as a junk philosopher, then what would?

Update: Edited on November 17, 2008, to remove an improperly cited quotation. I had included a quotation that elucidates the idea of methodological naturalism and I wrongly attributed the quote to Robert A. Delfino. I have now removed the quotation, but the substance of my argument has not been changed. Thanks are due to Andrew D. for pointing out my error.