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A Priori in the Buckian Sense

Stuart Buck , another Federalist Society lawyer (like the unfortunate Lawrence VanDyke, who is well-known to readers of this blog) is apparently intent on making sure the Federalist Society gets a reputation as a hotbed of dense apologists for Intelligent Design. Mr. Buck is the non-philosopher blogger Mr. VanDyke invoked, whom I alluded to in an earlier posting on Mr. VanDyke's muddle through philosophical naturalism . Mr. Buck's own muddle, as I noted, provoked a reply from a biologist ( they continue their "dialogue" here), and now also a physicist. Mr. Buck, needless to say, remains quite attached to his "insight" that there are two different senses of "a priori," one of which he denominates the "Kantian" sense. He explains: "Scientists often say as follows: 'Other scientists have seen that methodological naturalism has worked in the past; therefore I will approach any new problem with a strict insistence that only naturalistic solutions will be considered, because I have decided that only naturalistic solutions count as 'science.' Leiter focuses on the first part of that sentence [note: the sentence is Buck's, not Leiter's], and accordingly insists that methodological naturalism was not collectively chosen 'a priori' in the Kantian sense. That's all fine and well, but it says nothing about whether an individual scientist today approaches new problems having ruled out a particular type of solution without regard for its truth. In that sense, the commitment to methodological naturalism is 'a priori,' because it comes prior to an individual scientist's investigation of any actual new problem or question." Where to begin? Let's take "a priori" in the new, "Buckian sense." Scientists believe something "a priori in the Buckian sense" if "it comes prior to an individual's scientist's investigation of any actual new problem or question." So, e.g., since most scientists accept the truth of Newtonian mechanics for mid-size physical objects, despite the fact that most of them have never conducted any investigations or experiments to confirm Newtonian mechanics, it follows that they accept it, then, "a priori in the Buckian sense." Needless to say, natural scientists quite generally accept methodological naturalism "a priori in the Buckian sense." Indeed, it goes farther than that: most of us who are educated accept evolutionary biology "a priori in the Buckian sense" (after all, I'm no biologist, what do I know beyond what I've read and been told about it?). Indeed, I accept that FDR was President from 1932 to 1945, and that Hitler was a genocidal maniac in Germany during roughly those same years, and that Nietzsche was born in 1844 and died in 1900, and that Americans fought for independence from the British in the late 18th-century--I accept all of that "a priori in the Buckian sense," since I've done no empirical investigation to confirm any of it. What that means, of course, is that for a belief to be "a priori in the Buckian sense" is utterly trivial: huge portions of what laymen and scientists alike accept is "a priori in the Buckian sense." Of course, it is quite rational to continue to accept as true our beliefs that are "a priori in the Buckian sense" as long as (a) the processes by which we acquired the beliefs are epistemically reliable, and (b) we don't encounter conflicting evidence in the course of subequent experience and investigation. The latter, I take it, is Dr. Myers's point when he says to Buck: "If Intelligent Design creationists (or ghost-hunters, or crystal-healers, or zero-point energy advocates) were to actually produce any evidence of the phenomena they claim to study, we'd jump up and take notice. While Buck tries to claim it is irrelevant, it is actually the heart of the matter, and that's the whole point of what I was saying: gathering evidence is the foundation of what scientists do. Rolling your eyes and dismissing the point [as Buck did] while claiming, in essence, that 'it doesn't matter, scientists won't accept evidence of intelligent design even if we had any, so we won't bother' doesn't get us anywhere. Especially since it is false." In other words, in the absence of any evidence incompatible with methodological naturalism, we have no reason to give it up, despite its being, for most people, "a priori in the Buckian sense." (Let me note, though Mr. Buck does not, that this same issue came up in my earlier posting on VanDyke, in connection with the misrepresentation of Larry Laudan's views. As I wrote then: "Beckwith quotes Laudan [at 25] noting that ID 'is inconsistent with methodological naturalism and ontological materialism...[b]ut that fact has no bearing whatsoever on the plausbility of the arguments for ID.' Why does Laudan say that? Because methodological naturalism is an a posteriori doctrine, which means if ID generated any empirical results incompatible with it—it has not, of course—then so much the worse for MN. The problem is purely a posteriori: ID has no research program and no empirical support, so it presents no challenge at all to the reliance on naturalistical explanatory mechanisms.")

If it were really the case that Mr. VanDyke's point was simply that methodological naturalism was "a priori in the Buckian sense," then his point would have been true, but irrelevant, since the vast majority of the background beliefs and theories we work with all the time are "a priori in the Buckian sense." I assumed that he--like all the others who peddle Intelligent Design--might be making a non-trivial point, namely, that methodological naturalism was genuinely a priori, i.e., a dogma immune from and indifferent to the empirical evidence, and thus on a par, epistemically, with supernaturalism. If that were true, then we would have an argument for saying that evolutionary biology, with its genuinely a priori commitment to methodological naturalism, was indistinguishable from supernaturalism. Alas, it is not true that methodological naturalism is a priori in the only sense that is relevant. So, as I noted in my original post, Mr. Buck's intervention (which so impressed the equally befuddled Mr. VanDyke) is indeed quite "confused": let's see if Mr. Buck, who is plainly more intellectually able than the hopeless Joe Carter, can acknowledge the point. UPDATE: More on the topic here (though be forewarned the defiantly irrational Joe Carter surfaces in the comment section again).