Why Scientists Should Reject Methodological Naturalism

Why Scientists Should Reject Methodological Naturalism

(Update 3/29: Please regard this series as a first draft with important revisions yet to come.)

In three prior posts in this series I shown that Methodological Naturalism (MN) relies on assumptions that are:

  • Theological rather than scientific
  • Disputable rather than firmly established
  • Unnecessary rather than required for science

In particular I have shown that an attitude of methodological theism could be defended as appropriate to the practice of science. If that is so, then the choice of methodological naturalism over methodological theism can only be based on theological considerations. If some scientist wants to claim naturalism as the basis for her work, then fine; but she has no business telling everyone else that MN is necessary for their science.

By way of review, let’s recall that MN has indeed been described as necessary for the practice of science. For example, Robert Pennock at Dover:

Q. You testified that a characteristic of modern science is a commitment to what’s called methodological naturalism, is that correct?

A. Yes.

Steven Schafersmann, a geologist and prominent anti-creation/anti-Intelligent Design activist, writes,

Naturalism is a methodological necessity in the practice of science by scientists.

This supposed necessity is exactly what I am disputing, and what I believe I have shown to be erroneous.

Four Questions At This Stage of the Argument
But so far this is only a negative conclusion: MN is not essential to science, so let’s stop claiming that it is. That’s hardly adequate. It raises important questions like:

  1. Since MN is purely about methodology, and it assumes nothing about the real existence of the supernatural, or the truth of theism in particular, what’s the harm in it?
  2. MN works, so why drop it?
  3. If we’re going to reject MN, does that mean replacing it with Methodological Supernaturalism?

And most importantly:

  1. Is there a better stance to take toward science than MN—something else that does the good work MN is intended to do, but without its pitfalls?

What “Methodological Naturalism” Was Intended Mean, or, “What’s the Harm In It, Anyway?”
MN is purely about methodology. What could be so awful about that? What’s the problem with it? As Pennock writes,

Methodological naturalism does not define away any metaphysical possibilities or constrain the world; rather, it constrains science. Methodological naturalism is neutral with regard to supernatural possibilities. It takes a more humble view of what can be known. Science admits that it may miss true metaphysical facts about the world. Methodological naturalism does not claim access to all possible truths. Indeed, it expressly limits the purview of what can be known scientiWcally. If there are metaphysical truths beyond empirical test, then they are beyond science.

That is, MN is innocent with respect to conclusions regarding the supernatural. It speaks neither for nor against them: it simply insists that science is for discovering natural causes for natural effects.

If only that were true. Certainly in an ideal world MN could be just as Pennock described it: totally neutral in its assumptions and conclusions concerning supernatural realities. (Though I wonder what he meant by, “It takes a more humble view of what can be known. Known scientifically, or known at all? If the former, then Pennock is overreaching.) Based on what Nick Matzke, Panda’s Thumb (two of my most trusted academic sources) and Ronald L. Numbers (even more reliable) have to say, “Methodological Naturalism” was coined by a Christian philosopher:

The phrase “methodological naturalism” seems to have been coined by the philosopher Paul de Vries, then at Wheaton College, who introduced it at a conference in 1983 in a paper subsequently published as “Naturalism in the Natural Sciences,” Christian Scholar’s Review, 15(1986), 388-396. De Vries distinguished between what he called “methodological naturalism,” a disciplinary method that says nothing about God’s existence, and “metaphysical naturalism,” which “denies the existence of a transcendent God.”

That was how the term was meant to be understood.

Unintended Consequences
In practice, however, it has proved to be something more than that. Witness the many sources that oppose MN to belief in anything other than nature at all. Lawrence Krauss and J.B.S. Haldane (quoted in my opening article in this series) took it that MN in the lab was evidence for atheism everywhere. The Schafersman quote above continues as follows:

Naturalism is a methodological necessity in the practice of science by scientists, and an ontological necessity for the understanding and credibility of science by scientists. The alternative to naturalism is supernaturalism; unless naturalism is true and supernaturalism false, empiricism–comprehending reality solely by sensory experience–is not sufficient to comprehend reality; rationalism–the use of logic in reasoning–is not sufficient to understand reality; and skepticism–the questioning and evaluation of one’s knowledge system and beliefs–is not sufficient to arrive at reliable knowledge of reality. Naturalism implies a unity and lawfulness in nature, a condition in which nature’s reality can be objectively understood, without which the pursuit of scientific knowledge would be useless. But naturalism is not an assumption or presupposition on the part of scientists, a common claim of critics; it is, instead, a hypothesis that has been tested and repeatedly corroborated, and so has become reliable knowledge itself.

Schafersman adds,

naturalism is a methodological necessity in the practice of science by scientists, and an ontological necessity for the understanding and credibility of science by scientists.

By “ontological necessity,” he means that a scientific viewpoint requires that naturalism be true of all reality, that nothing exists but matter, energy, and their interactions according to law and chance (and in some versions of naturalism, also some abstract entities like numbers and propositions; the point being that what ever non-material entities may exist they are neither personal nor supernatural). This view, generally termed Philosophical Naturalism, is obviously a species of atheism.

Do these anti-theistic, anti-supernatural conclusions follow logically from MN? Certainly not. But psychologically the term “naturalism” prejudices the mind toward naturalistic conclusions, not just naturalistic methodologies. It is an unfortunate unintended consequence of de Vries’s choice of terminology. How else could New Atheist writers like Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Coyne, and Myers think they could get away with telling us that to be scientific one must be atheistic at the same time?

I do not say that everyone makes that mistake, but I do say that hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of books have been sold on its basis. When one realizes that there is at least one form of methodological theism that supports science equally as well as MN, the entire “scientific” case for atheism evaporates in a moment. This fact is obscured, though, by insistence on MN as a requirement for science. It makes it appear as if science supports atheism, which of course is not true: science is great at what science does greatly, but theology (and also a-theology) is not its strength.

Psychological Impact of the Term
The argument I’m making here is admittedly neither philosophical nor logical; rather it is psychological. Pennock’s statement about MN’s implying nothing about the true nature of reality would be true and trustworthy in every way, if only MN did not have the psychological effect of biasing the mind toward naturalism, and of giving cover to some writers’ false (and non-scientific) contentions that to be scientific requires one to be atheistic. See further this from Eugenie Scott:

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.

Psychologically speaking, acting as if something does not exist prejudices one toward believing that it does not exist. Festinger has shown us that behavior affects beliefs. Nobody in the pursuit of truth—least of all scientists—favors terminology that is inherently biased. If there were a better term than MN, one that avoided this naturalistic bias, wouldn’t it be preferable to use that instead?

Part 5, the conclusion to this series (as far as I have planned it so far) will be coming shortly. I’m trying to keep all these posts down to a reasonable length.

Series Navigation (Science Doesn't Need MN):<<< Why Science Doesn’t Need Methodological Naturalism (2)<<< Why Science Doesn’t Need Methodological NaturalismRegularism: A Better Alternative to Methodological Naturalism >>>
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