Over at Sentient Developments, Russell Blackford takes on the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci and his recent piece on the limits of skeptical inquiry. Russell’s comments in general are quite convincing, but one passage particularly caught my attention.
I’ve been hanging out at various Christian apologist websites recently, contributing the odd comment here and there and scratching my head over some of the crazier assertions that people make. And one of the common moves that apologists make, when a unique and supposedly miraculous claim is challenged, is to say that science is unqualified to judge such things because “with God, all things are possible” Of course, this is really no different from Last-Thursdayism: we can’t trust the evidence for anything, because the universe might have been arranged to create that illusion. So I particularly liked Russell’s robust rejection of such moves:
However, what if somebody replies that God arranged for the Earth to look far older than it really is, in order to test our faith? Here, Pigliucci thinks that science and hence skeptical inquiry reaches a limit. He claims, in effect, that philosophers have a reply, whereas scientists must stand mute.
I disagree with this. The scientist is quite entitled to reject the claim, not because it makes falsified predictions or conflicts directly with observations it doesnt but because it is ad hoc. It is perfectly legitimate for scientists working in the relevant fields to make the judgment that a particular hypothesis is not worth pursuing, and should be treated as false, because it has been introduced merely to avoid falsification of a position that is contrary to the evidence.
Scientists might take some interest in claims about a pre-aged Earth if they were framed in such a way as to make novel and testable predictions, but as long as all such claims are presented as mere ad hoc manoeuvres to avoid falsification of the claim that the universe is really 6,000 years old, a scientist is quite entitled to reject it. A philosopher should reject it for exactly the same reason. Philosophers don’t have any advantage over scientists at this point.
Thus, Pigliucci is unnecessarily limiting the kinds of arguments that are available to scientists. He writes as if they are incapable of using arguments grounded in commonsense reasoning, such as arguments that propose we reject ad hoc thesis-saving hypotheses.