Monday, December 12, 2011

Purposeful Epistemological Self Limitation (or why Methodological Naturalism is like Soccer)

I love playing soccer. I love being part of a team built on unspoken communication and the ability to predict each other’s behavior.[1] I love the finesse and the hard work.[2] I love the thwack of the netting as a well struck ball finds the upper corner of the goal. And mostly I love the contact. I just really like getting hit a couple times a week. It reminds me of a part of myself that lies dormant in the coffee shops, cubicle, class rooms and play grounds that compose most of the rest of my life.

So, it does not occur to me to object to the arbitrary limitations placed on hand usage in the game. The self limitation of our most trusted appendages is part of what makes the game interesting. I love the game and so I play by its rules.

In fact, I have gotten so comfortable with these rules, that I have forgotten how un-natural they are…until I had a second born. My two-year-old refuses to limit the use of her hands[3] when we play soccer to the endless frustration of my four-year-old.[4] But this reminds me of my earliest days playing the game. Youth soccer is plagued by ‘hand balls’ because there is nothing more natural for an eight-year-old in the heat of competition than to reach out and grab a contested ball. Part of the early training in soccer is the discipline of self-limitation of highly useful parts of our self.

And we gladly submit to this self limitation, because, as I have established, I love soccer. The rest of my life is enriched by this activity that requires a measure of self limitation. Chasing a ball in a competitive framework burns about twice as many calories per hour than running and, according to my wife, I have more domestic patience if I get to ‘battle’ other dudes a couple times a week.

But when the buzzer goes off, and the game is over, my hands and arms are immediately employed in their standard useful activity. I pick up my bag…I ice my aging joints…I clean off the blood…I drive home…I hug my wife…I hold my baby. You see, the reason self limitation is useful is because it is restricted to an appropriate arena.

If it wasn’t restricted, it would be disability.

Now there is another game I love. I love science.[5] I love the story. I love the paradox. I love the resolution of paradox. I love that reality is ‘not only strange than we thought but stranger than we could have imagined.’ I love discovery and understanding. I even enjoy the reluctant release of a mistaken hypothesis. And I enjoy much of the technology that the enterprise has generated. I love science.

But in some ways, science is just like soccer. The rules of the game…part of what makes the game fruitful and fun…include counter-intuitive self limitation. Science presumes ‘methodological naturalism.’ It requires a temporary renunciation of metaphysics…the suspension of teleology. And just like youth soccer, this takes some getting used to, because we are fundamentally teleological beings, accustomed to employing our metaphysical faculties and finding them useful.[6]

The lab is a ‘world without windows.’[7] It presupposes a closed universe. Methodological naturalism focuses us epistemologically to recognize the aspects of our reality that are repeatable and knowable through by measurement and experimentation. But we can make the mistake to think that because these are the only things science can know, that they are the only things that can be know. Soccer is a fantastic game, but it would be a tragic lifestyle. Science is a fantastic method, but it is a tragic world view.

When the ‘buzzer goes off’ in the lab and I walk out into a beautiful evening and I hug my wife and I hold my baby and I play ‘soccer’ with my daughters and I read poetry and let a flat screen of my laptop tell me stories and read ancient texts with insight into reality…it is time to set aside the self limitation of methodological naturalism and experience reality as a person…with my metaphysical faculties engaged. It is time to let science feed teleology and live under the auspices of a broader, more robust epistemology.

The reason self limitation is useful is because it is restricted to an appropriate arena. If it wasn’t restricted, it would be disability.

This post was written while listening to The Creek Drank the Cradle by Iron and Wine
[1] In other words, on knowing each other. A soccer team that is also a human community is usually a more competitive team.
[2] Sadly, not in that order. I have aged as a soccer player much more rapidly than others. I was Varsity captain and a league All Star in high school. But it was all speed, hard work, set pieces and an unexpectedly competent shot from outside the box (for a nerd…the ‘surprise effect’ of being a competent nerd on the pitch is considerable). I ran track and had a rigorous physical conditioning regimen for a high schooler…so I was just in better shape than almost anyone in the league. But none of my soccer coaches ever actually played soccer. So I never learned foot skills or developed an appreciable ‘soccer IQ’. This is a problem in my mid-thirties. The speed and conditioning advantage has been lost in the slow march to senescence (and a schedule that includes actual responsibilities). This shouldn’t be a problem in the over-30 league, because we are all in the same position, left only with our foot skills and whiles…only, I don’t have any. So I watch the competitive gap between myself and an average player widen (in the wrong direction) the older I get.

I once posted a ‘free agent’ announcement that read “hard worker, reliably shows for games, pays on time, good motor, decent shot, mediocre ball skills.” The sad thing is that I was overselling my ball skills. The sadder thing is I got offers.
[3] I recently took the girls to several UCD volleyball games because one of the senior starters is part of the campus Christian community we are involved in. We love introducing the girls to admirable young women who are kind and strong…who embody the best of grace and power (which describes or friend Katie). Ever since, Aletheia has asked to play ‘volleyball’ instead of soccer because she has realized that sports exist that don’t impose silly hand restrictions.
[4] Here are some additional, gratuitous, Soccer pics of my 4-year. So far, she is like her daddy. She is an average dribbler, but she’s a hard worker and can drop the hammer. One of the other dads told me his son came home and told him ‘Charis kicks the ball so hard.’

[5] I went to the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco for the first time this week. It is the biggest conference I have ever been to…and the least practical. I usually go to applied science or engineering conferences. But the pure beauty of the explored earth sings. Pure science is like art in a lot of way. It requires public funding (or rare and generous patronage) to be possible…so getting to do it is a privilege not a right. But I think a society is ennobled by resourcing both.
[6] There are a number of famous recognitions of this. Most famously Francis Crick argued that “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.” Even in my own intro to Ecology class, the venerable Dr Shapiro encouraged us that ‘we have to be ever cautious of teleological thinking.’
[7] Though, for most labs, this is not only metaphorically, but also literally true.


Ian and Gilda said...

Have you seen the interesting exchange between Plantinga and Roman Catholic philosopher of science Ernan McMullin? It's really interesting and in large part a disagreement over the place of methodological naturalism. Plantinga's paper is “When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible” and McMullin's is “Evolution and Special Creation”. I think one or both can be found by googling.

JMBower said...

I remember having a biology lab in college, and it was uncharacteristically (as you point out) in a room with a lot of windows.

I spent a lot of time watching the fall foliage, birds, and valley/campus out of that window, when I should have been doing lab work. I think, in its own little way, that points out A) why I am not a hardcore scientist (for all my appreciation thereof), but remain an avowed naturalist, and B)maybe why some labs don't have a lot of windows.
Great post as usual!