Tom Gilson

Why Science Doesn’t Need Methodological Naturalism

(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):

  1. The supernatural is not testable.
  2. Admitting the supernatural into science would undermine scientific rationality.
  3. 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.

Series Navigation (Science Doesn't Need MN):<<< Science Doesn’t Need Methodological NaturalismWhy Scientists Should Reject Methodological Naturalism >>>
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9 thoughts on “Why Science Doesn’t Need Methodological Naturalism

  1. Even your own quotes of Haldane, Grayling & Pennock don’t say that it is “logically necessary for science to be atheistic in theory or in practice”. So objecting to that viewpoint is beside the point.

    They are saying that science assumes God isn’t intervening in the regular order of things in whatever is being studyied. Which you kinda-sorta endorse from a Christian viewpoint that God is rational and made a rational world that we could successfully study. Perhaps you are actually a Christian methodological naturalist, which is a well-known and common position. (Which shouldn’t be surprising, considering that Christians invented MN, both the practice and the term, in the first place: http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2006/03/on-the-origins.html )

    Also, FWIW Pennock is a Quaker.

  2. Perhaps you are actually a Christian methodological naturalist, which is a well-known and common position.

    Or perhaps someone with the belief that God regularly – even at this moment – upholds order and nature, is not a methodological naturalist after all. Or that “methodological naturalism” is a misnomer.

  3. J.B.S. Haldane, whom I have quoted twice here, also spoke of the universe being “queerer than we imagine… queerer than we can imagine.” I mention this to illustrate the way words change meaning over time. Methodological naturalism has not morphed meanings as much as “queer” has, but already it has connotations now that it did not have 25 or 30 years ago. I think it was bound to pick up those connotations, because I think in retrospect it was a poorly chosen nomenclature—even if it did come out of Wheaton. I’ll have more to say on that later. I’ve been intending to bring it into the discussion at the point when I address MN in light of PN.

  4. Why is this ‘blog’ listed on blog rank as a Philosophy blog. Theology and Philosphy are 2 different things.

  5. Well, Sean, I have two questions for you:

    1. Can you define for me what it is that makes theology and philosophy two different things? (Are they entirely separate, or can there be some overlap between the two?)
    2. Which of those disciplines does this series best fit under, and why?

    Oh, and a third: if I try I can kind of figure out the attitude that would lead someone to ask a question like yours; but really, why put ‘blog’ in scare quotes?

  6. I see very different methodologies based on the field of science, as Meyer discusses. In the historical sciences, which must use historical methodology, it begs many of the most interesting questions if we were to apply MN.

    When we study the Big Bang, is that science? History? Cosmology? Philosophy? Theology? The answer is “yes.” Applying MN to the Big Bang is absurd– like telling half your brain not to participate.

  7. I disagree, pds. I think one can trace an unbroken chain of natural causes back, not only to the big bang, but to the so called pre-big bang inflationary period. It is only when you deal with the question of the origin itself that the discussion becomes metaphysical. However, it is true that some of the naturalistic alternatives to theism the multi-verse model or the oscillating universe model, while they may seem to be scientific, are themselves thoroughly metaphysical, and should be treated as such.

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