(Update 3/29: Please regard this series as a first draft with important revisions yet to come.)
I have just completed an argument to the effect that “Methodological Naturalism” (MN) is a false and flawed requirement for the practice of natural science. MN’s assumptions are theological rather than scientific, as witnessed by the fact that there is at least one form of “Methodological Theism” with equivalent implications for the practice of science. MN’s theological assumptions are disputable, and they are not resolvable by scientific means. Science can proceed without naturalistic assumptions of any kind, including methodologically. Granted, MN could be (and has often been proposed to be) broad enough to encompass a theistic understanding of nature, but its psychological effect is to bias persons toward a naturalistic vision of all reality, and to give illegitimate cover to those who claim a scientific attitude requires atheistic beliefs.
There has to be a better way to approach science than that.
“Methodological Supernaturalism:” A False Dichotomy
What would that more preferable way be? Most writers seem to take it that the one and only alternative to MN is Methodological Supernaturalism (MS). Mark Vuletic writes:
I take methodological naturalism to be the practice of adhering to the kind of methodology a metaphysical naturalist devoted to fulfilling the aims of science would adhere to. Methodological supernaturalism, correspondingly, is the practice of adhering to the kind of methodology a metaphysical supernaturalist devoted to fulfilling the aims of science would adhere to.
Steven Schafersman says he is
concerned with the relationship of science and naturalism, whether science assumes or necessitates methodological or ontological naturalism or both, and whether supernaturalism can or should be a part of science.
Mark Isaak writes (p. 25),
Naturalism works. By assuming methodological naturalism, we have made tremendous advances in industry, medicine, agriculture, and many other fields. Supernaturalism has never led anywhere.
Now, if MS were indeed the only alternative, I would rush to support MN all the way. MS is, if anything, even more biased than MN. We all agree nature exists; we don’t all agree the supernatural does. I’m not arguing for more bias but for less!
Is there then another approach toward science that stays on the proverbial cliff, without falling off toward either a naturalistic or supernaturalistic bias?
“Reliable Regularity of Cause and Effect In Nature”
Whatever that better alternative is, it had better retain all the virtues of MN. For all my disagreement with requiring MN as a basis for science, I don’t dispute the good it does. Its effect is to lead scientists to seek natural causes for natural effects, which is exactly what scientists ought to do, all the way down, as far as they can. Now, that may come as a surprise to some readers (it ought not to, but I expect it will anyway) in view of my sympathies toward Intelligent Design. ID’s conclusions are (as of now, at least) supported by the utter lack of natural, scientifically-accessible explanations for the origin of the universe and of the first life. Fine: let science keep looking—all the way down, as far as it can! The more we study, the more we learn, and that’s all to the good.
MN has been fruitful and productive in its insistence on looking for natural explanations for natural causes. It has the associated virtue of expecting the world to behave itself. It assumes that nature will act reliably and regularly. This is the positive side of Haldane’s proclamation, “When I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course.” What he means is that he expects regularity rather than chaos. Theism expects the same, as I have argued previously. The expectation that nature will act reliably and with regularity is central to our entire experience of life, and (if it were possible) even more so to the practice of science.
And with those two requirements—the deep pursuit of cause and effect in nature, and the expectation of reliable regularity in nature—I believe I have exhausted the essential virtues of MN as a requirement for science. If we discard the terminology of Methodological Naturalism, as I have recommended, we must still retain this much of it as a necessary, regulating assumption for the practice of science: We expect a reliable regularity of cause and effect in nature.
And that’s it. It doesn’t scan very well, I admit. “Reliable regularity of cause and effect in nature” has seventeen syllables instead of MN’s ten, and it doesn’t insert into a sentence as handily as “Methodological Naturalism” does. (Maybe someone more poetic than me can compress it down to two words. See the first comment for one suggestion, which I have gone back and incorporated into the title of this blog entry.) But it expresses all of MN’s virtues as a requirement for the practice of science, without making non-scientific, disputable, and needless assumptions, or unscientifically biasing anyone’s conclusions toward or away from naturalism, theism, or any variation or combination thereof.
It’s a better way to approach the practice of science.
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