A reader emailed me this week with a couple of questions about methodological naturalism and burden of proof. He told me it would be fine if I posted his questions and my answers here. The questions start out very promising; I’m not used to being called “professor.” (I’m all too accustomed to being called other things.)
The first question has to do with a principle often spoken in science: Act as if there is no God interfering with your experiments and observations. That principle works in science, so does that mean there really is no God? The second quest is about who has to prove what to whom.
Dear Professor Gilson,
Thank you for such prompt and generous response. Email works best if that’s okay. These are my questions.
#1 What do you think of Barbara Forrest’s argument that the success of methodological naturalism is evidence of metaphysical naturalism (since, why would the method work unless the subject is naturalistic)?
#2 What do you make of the argument that some have advanced that since theistic metaphysics are unfalsifiable (they can’t be proven or disproven) the burden of proof should be on theists?
Thank you for the compliment, J__, but I am an independent student of these matters and not a professor.
#1. Barbara Forrest is simply wrong, because theism predicts the same thing. Christian theism in particular carries the full and complete expectation that nature will act with reliable regularity of cause and effect. Briefly stated, there are at least three reasons to think so:
a) God would want humans to be realistically responsible moral agents. Regularity of cause and effect is essential for that. If feeding our kids rubber balls were unpredictably bad for them one day and good for them the next, we could hardly possess moral responsibility for what we give them to eat!
b) God wants humans to learn, including cognitive awareness, social skill, moral knowledge, and practical skills. All of this requires reliable regularity of cause and effect.
c) God may want to communicate through miracles from time to time. Communication theory makes it plain that miracles (signs) must be rare and noticeably irregular, otherwise they would not be recognized as “signal” above the ambient noise.
Additionally, Judeo-Christian theism is unique among worldviews in that it grounds the law-like rational regularity of nature in a metaphysically adequate explanatory source: a good, rational God. For naturalism that regularity is just a brute fact.
So with respect to question 1, a metaphysically simple doctrine of reliable regularity in nature is both (1) sufficient to explain the success of science and (2) equally at home in both theism and naturalism. It doesn’t predict naturalism above theism, therefore it is not evidence in favor of metaphysical naturalism.
#2. Watch out for trick questions. Naturalistic metaphysics are at least arguably just as unfalsifiable as theistic metaphysics. Whether the conclusion follows from the premise is a less interesting question than whether the premise itself is true.
The burden of proof generally falls to the person making the claim, and naturalism is no neutral, default position. It makes claims.
So for example I think naturalists own the burden of proof to show that their worldview can give a satisfactory explanation for common human experience, including free will, consciousness, meaning or purpose, and rationality including the ability to draw conclusions inferentially rather than mechanistically and the ability to think “about” things (intentionality). I think naturalists own the burden to prove that abiogenesis is possible, i.e. that the first life appeared naturalistically. I could go on with other examples. (See here and here for more.)
Theists on the other hand own the burden of proof to show that their particular understanding of God is correct. As a Christian I accept the burden to show that Jesus Christ is and was God incarnate. I accept the burden to show that the Bible is reliably true. And so on.
The main thing, though, is that the question itself is flawed. Its premise assumes naturalism as a default position, when in fact it’s at least arguable (and it cannot be offhandedly assumed otherwise) that naturalism is a very, very strange belief.
Thank you for asking a couple of great questions, though.