- Science Doesn’t Need Methodological Naturalism
- Why Science Doesn’t Need Methodological Naturalism (2)
- Why Science Doesn’t Need Methodological Naturalism
- Why Scientists Should Reject Methodological Naturalism
- Regularism: A Better Alternative to Methodological Naturalism
- Methodological Naturalism and Regularism: A Postscript
(Update 3/29: Please regard this series as a first draft with important revisions yet to come.)
Two days ago I wrote about the theology implicit in one justification of Methodological Naturalism’s (MN’s) being a requirement for science. I was responding then to the second of the three Justifications for MN I had listed in the first post in this series:
- The supernatural is not testable.
- Admitting the supernatural into science would undermine scientific rationality.
- MN works.
(I am still open to adding to that list. If you know of further reasons to regard MN as necessary for the conduct of science, please let us know by way of a comment here.)
Today I will extend the same line of thinking I followed for Justification 2 as I respond to Justifications 1 and 3, and I will show that all three of them are shot through with disputable and needless theological assumptions.
The Argument In Outline Form
Before I proceed with that it will be helpful to lay out the entire outline of my argument. (Maybe I should have done that last time; better late than never.) It goes like this:
- The assumptions underlying MN’s being a requirement for science are theological in nature (to be argued).
- These assumptions are substantively theological, not just nominally so (to be argued).
- These assumptions could conceivably be wrong (to be argued).
- It is impossible for MN-based science to investigate these assumptions’ accuracy: it would be a circular undertaking, using MN’s assumptions to test MN’s accuracy (logical deduction on the basis of circularity).
- Therefore (4) these assumptions are not within the competence of MN-based science to investigate.
- Therefore (1 and 5) MN’s assumptions are a matter of theology, not of science.
- MN is not essential to the progress of science (to be argued).
- Therefore (3, 4, 6, and 7) to make MN a condition for science is to commit needlessly to a disputable theological position which science is not in a position to adjudicate.
- There exists a more appropriate condition for science which does the work MN was intended to do, yet without making that needless, disputable commitment (to be argued).
- Therefore (9) MN should be discarded in favor of that more appropriate condition for practicing science.
Step 2 in this argument relates to a point Nick Matzke raised in a comment. I will paraphrase it this way: Suppose it’s true that science doesn’t need MN. So what? It’s a harmless term (it was even coined by a theist). It doesn’t imply any real theological position at all; it’s a matter of methodology and nothing more. I am saving my defense of Step 2 for later, simply to keep this post from growing to an unreasonable length for a blog entry. For now I will ask you to accept Step 2 provisionally, and evaluate today’s argument accordingly. I know that if it gets defeated in my next post, all this may turn out to be a waste of time. I’m willing to take that risk. My argument for Step 9 will also come later.
Otherwise I believe the argument presented here is valid and sound, provided that I can show that each of the three major justifications can be found to meet the descriptions in Steps 1, 3, and 7. I did so with respect to Justification 2 in my last post in this series. Today I will show the same for Justifications 1 and 3.
“The supernatural is not testable; therefore we must conduct science as if the supernatural is not involved.” So goes the argument. Robert Pennock has argued (p. 740 here) that if the supernatural were testable, it would in fact be natural instead of supernatural. Intelligent Design theorists argue, in contrast, that we can detect signs within nature of something that is beyond what we ordinarily regard as natural. Bradley Monton has argued (decisively, I think) that Pennock is wrong in this respect. The debate rages on, and I don’t expect to resolve it here.
Nor do I need to resolve it for present purposes. Let’s grant that the supernatural is not testable by scientific means. Why would that entail a naturalistic approach to science? The arguments for that position focus on treating the supernatural as an immediate and non-infrequent cause for natural phenomena, such that there is no reliable regularity within nature for science to study, and/or that there are some relatively frequent cases in which effects in nature have no cause but some unmediated supernatural action. If we were to take that as a serious possibility, it could lead to us saying “God did it, so we can end our natural investigations right here”—which would be a tragic science-stopper. That concern has been raised so often I hardly know where to begin documenting it, but here at least is one such reference from Eugenie Scott, which I have also quoted below.
But there are theological assumptions buried in there: that if we admit supernatural activity into our conception of the natural world, we must admit it as the kind of force that acts immediately and apart from natural cause-effect relations, and does so frequently enough that it derails the scientific enterprise. Those assumptions are disputable. Most theists believe that God is in fact immediately involved in the natural world, that he is not distant as the deists suppose; but most theists also take it that normally God effects his actions in the world by way of what we see as natural causes and effects. In saying this I am re-stating what I said yesterday and argued for earlier. If this is true, and arguably it is, then Methodological Theism is a better assumption to take for science than Methodological Naturalism.
For present purposes I do not need to show that this is indeed true of God and of reality in general. My argument requires only that it be conceivably be true, so that (Step 2) MN’s assumptions are conceivably false. Obviously (Step 1) the question is a matter of theology. As for Step 7, if this conception of theism is correct, it supports science at least as well as naturalism does (arguably better, but I won’t go into that); for it takes it that virtually every effect has a cause within the sphere we recognize as nature. Theism allows for miracles, but miracles are by definition very exceptional: infrequent enough that science can get along just fine in spite of them. In one sense they are nothing new: researchers know what to do with statistical outliers.
Once Justifications 1 and 2 have been dealt with, there’s really nothing left of Justification 3. Recall what Eugenie Scott said, which I quoted in the first post in this series:
[MN] 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.
By “supernatural,” obviously she means something separable from nature and the normal course of cause and effect. I have just shown that to regard the supernatural in that way is to make a disputable theological assumption (Steps 1 and 3), and that there is a theistic alternative to MN that supports the progress of science (Step 7).
The Argument So Far
I believe this demonstrates that all of the major justifications for MN fall to the objection that they are disputable, needless, and not part of science. If so, then it only remains to show that this is a substantive problem and not merely a nominal one (Step 2), and that there is a better alternative to MN (Step 9) that does the work MN was meant to do, but without MN’s fatal weaknesses.