Science neither denies nor opposes the supernatural, but ignores the supernatural for methodological reasons. The history of science has shown that progress comes from logical and empirical study rather than reference to revelation or to inner psychological states. That’s how we play our game; his basketball won’t work on our baseball field. The essence of science is empiricism and control of variables, and if there is an omnipotent God, it certainly can’t be controlled like temperature or humidity. Science has made a little deal with itself: because you can’t put God in a test tube (or keep it out of one), science acts as if the supernatural did not exist. This methodological materialism is the cornerstone of modern science.
(Materialism and naturalism mean essentially the same thing in this context.)
In this blog series I intend to argue that this is wrong; that methodological naturalism (MN) is not essential to modern science. In this first part I will lay out three primary reasons scientists and philosophers invoke for adhering to MN. In the process I am opening up discussion especially for the purpose of hearing whether there are other major justifications for MN that I have missed. (I predict that some readers will want to jump in right now to refute my arguments. I suggest you wait until the next part in the series when I actually begin to make them.)
1. Testability The first common justification for MN is testability: if God is involved in some natural phenomenon, we could never know it scientifically, for there is no scientific test that could detect his actions. We’ve already seen Eugenie Scott’s views on that. She is hardly the only one. Speaking as witness at the Dover Intelligent Design (ID) trial, Robert Pennock (philosopher of science at Michigan State University) said,
Someone who says well, we have to consider the possibility of supernatural interventions might say well, you know, God was in there or some supernatural designer was in there changing the bits inside the computer.
Well, you know, we don’t know if that’s true, and no scientist can ever know if that’s true. That’s not a testable proposition. So in that sense we can never rule that out. That’s part of what it means to be a methodological naturalist.
For a hypothesis to be scientific it must be inter-subjectively testable, and fit within the framework of law-governed cause-effect relations. This is the core of what it means to be a natural object and to be amenable to scientific investigation. Agreeing to be constrained by this sort of epistemological approach as the means of gathering public knowledge about the empirical world is just what it is to be a methodological naturalist…. In proposing a theistic science Johnson claims to be expanding science to supernatural possibilities undreamed of in this philosophy, but what he and other so-called Creation scientists are really doing is reducing God to a scientific object, placing God in the scientific box.
Alongside testability, scientific rationality supposedly requires MN. Prominent Internet Infidel Mark I. Vuletic put it this way:
if science must include a supernatural realm, it will be forced into a game where there are no rules. Without rules, no scientific observation, explanation, or prediction can enjoy a high probability of being a correct picture of the real world.
At Dover, Robert Pennock voiced his concerns over “God or some supernatural being … in there fiddling with the gates.” He also writes,
Without the binding assumption of uninterruptible natural law there would be absolute chaos in the scientific worldview.
My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.
Then Krauss went on to speak for himself and an atheist compatriot:
Though the scientific process may be compatible with the vague idea of some relaxed deity who merely established the universe and let it proceed from there, it is in fact rationally incompatible with the detailed tenets of most of the world’s organized religions. As Sam Harris recently wrote in a letter responding to the Nature editorial that called him an “atheist absolutist,” a “reconciliation between science and Christianity would mean squaring physics, chemistry, biology, and a basic understanding of probabilistic reasoning with a raft of patently ridiculous, Iron Age convictions.”
to say nothing of 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:
Most scientists today require that science be carried out according to the rule of methodological materialism: to explain the natural world scientifically, scientists must restrict themselves only to material causes (to matter, energy, and their interaction). There is a practical reason for this restriction: it works. By continuing to seek natural explanations for how the world works, we have been able to find them. If supernatural explanations are allowed, they will discourage – or at least delay – the discovery of natural explanations, and we will understand less about the universe.
Three Reasons… These then are the best justifications I know of for MN as a rule for science:
The supernatural is not testable.
Admitting the supernatural into science would undermine scientific rationality.
To preview where I am headed, I plan to argue that whatever these three reasons’ validity may be, none of them individually or taken together is sufficient to make MN a rule for science; and that there exists another and better basis upon which science can proceed productively, practically, and rationally.
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