Posted on Mar 22, 2011
(Update 3/29: Please regard this series as a first draft with important revisions yet to come.)
I wrote yesterday on three justifications for requiring Methodological Naturalism (MN) as an operating principle for science. (Not all scientists or philosophers of science hold to MN in that way, I hasten to add; I am only objecting to those who do.) At the end of that post I said I would argue that whatever the virtues of those three justifications might be, they are insufficient. Science doesn’t need MN. Today I begin to explain why.
The three main justifications I know of for MN are these (explained further in the prior post):
- The supernatural is not testable.
- Admitting the supernatural into science would undermine scientific rationality.
- MN works.
I begin with Justification 2, Admitting the supernatural into science would undermine scientific rationality. The question arises, why is this so? I quoted three answers to that yesterday, J.B.S. Haldane wrote, “when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course.” A.C. Grayling voiced concern over local suspension of the laws of nature for arbitrary reasons e.g. in answer to personal prayer, which makes a nonsense of the idea that the world or the deity is rationally comprehensible.” Robert Pennock objected to the thought of God or some supernatural being … in there fiddling with the gates.”
What these objections have in common is a certain view of the supernatural: that God might “interfere” with the course of an experiment, that he might suspend the laws of nature locally “for arbitrary reasons,” or that he might “fiddle” with things. These objections also entail a certain dubious view of nature, I might add, which we’ll get back to when I cover Justification 1. For now the salient point is that these objections only hold water under a certain conception of God. As I have written elsewhere, this conception has never fit Christianity’s view of God. This is no ad hoc, johnny-come-lately adjustment theology has made so it can keep up with science. The Jewish and Christian religions have always regarded God’s creation as rational and orderly, an expression of God’s own character.
But suppose you don’t buy the arguments I made in that article. Suppose you flew on past the link without even reading it. Actually it matters little to the current discussion, once you realize the import of what Haldane, Grayling, and Pennock are doing: they are basing their philosophy of science on their theology. The reason they advance Point 2 as justification for MN is precisely because of their view of God. Never mind that they don’t believe in God; still they have in mind a certain kind of God (god) from which they think they must protect science. This god is arbitrary, this god interferes, this god fiddles with things. The way they propose to shield science from this god is to assume there is no God or god of any description at all.
But clearly this is excessive. An argument can be made for a God who intended the world to be the kind of place where science would succeed. MN says no thanks: when we’re doing science we must assume that even that kind of God does not exist. But why? If this God is not one who interferes arbitrarily, if he does not go “fiddling” with things, then this justification for MN dries up. There is no basis for it. Science is perfectly compatible with a deistic God, and just as compatible with a God such as Jews and Christians conceive him to be, one who has established nature to run with a dependable, reliable regularity, following what we call natural laws. We believe God does miracles, yes; but really now, how much damage does one man’s rising from the grave in glory do to the scientific enterprise?
(The only real damage it does is to the pride of those who think they must have a handle on the one tool that reveals all knowledge. But science does not depend for its life on being that one tool. I’ll have more to say about that later.)
Again: let us suppose that you as a believer in MN do not believe that this God is real; that he is Christians’ fabulation. You are nevertheless overreaching if you declare that science must assume that God does not exist. Science requires reliable regularity in nature. Science does not need to pronounce that the only way we can count on that is by assuming there is no God at work, in the lab or in the field. Science does not need to make one limited theological position a requirement for its success, when there might be another position that supports science equally as well. More succinctly: it is not logically necessary for science to be atheistic in theory or in practice. Science isn’t theology, and it doesn’t have to make theological statements.
I’ll continue this in Part Three of the series. There remain two justifications for MN to deal with as I move forward, and I will need to address another issue that today’s post may have raised in some minds. That is, what I’ve written today stands in danger of conflating MN with Philosophical Naturalism (PN). I think I’ve been careful to avoid making that actual error, but admittedly I’ve been skirting close to it. Those of you who are wondering whether I’m making that error already know what PN is; I’ll define it for others when I come back to deal with it. I’ll ask you to be patient, because that will be the final step in the arguments I will make in this series.