Sunday, January 15, 2006

Science and Methodological Naturalism

In yesterday's post I gave some background on the Intelligent Design (ID) debate and noted that an increasingly popular move by the mainstream scientific establishment has been to stipulate that "science" requires methodological naturalism. In other words, the claim is that properly "scientific" explanations can only make reference to 'natural' laws and entities, the kinds of laws and entities that would presumably find inclusion in a completed form of physics. Accordingly, any appeals to "designers" may only be to finite designers the existence of which can ultimately be explained by a naturalistic evolutionary-type process.

What I want to argue today is that invoking methodological naturalism as an essential characteristic of science is going to backfire on the mainstream scientific establishment.

First, this way of defining "science" is historically and philosophically arbitrary. Prior to the rise of Darwininsm and Comtean positivism in the 19th century, no one--not Galileo, not Newton, not Kepler, Boyle, you name it--would have thought to define "science" in terms of a commitment to methodological naturalism. Instead, beginning all the way back with Aristotle, the various sciences were defined in terms of the object of their study, not the types of explanatory entities they were allowed to invoke. Thus, physics was (roughly) the study of the mechanical properties of things, biology was the study of organic and living things, psychology the study of cognitive, emotional, and volitional phenomena, and so forth. Accordingly, Newton saw no problems with drawing God into his physics as the ground for his absolute space and time. He certainly didn't think he was stepping outside of science at that point. What may seem even more surprising is the fact that theology was regarded as a science (during the Middle Ages it reigned as the 'queen of the sciences'), and so was philosophy. In fact science and philosophy were practically coextensive. Galileo and Newton did not think of themselves as 'physicists' or 'astronomers' but as natural philosophers (i.e., philosophers who were trying to understand the natural world).

What history shows is that it's the methodological naturalists who have "re-defined" science, not the Intelligent Design theorists. And they have re-defined it in a way that undermines it's epistemic authority. Let me elaborate.

Noted 19th-century logician, philosopher, and scientist Charles Sanders Peirce argued that to "block the road of inquiry" was to commit a cardinal sin against rationality. To "block the road of inquiry" is to set up a priori restrictions on where inquiry can go and on what kinds of answers it can reach. The reason why Peirce saw this as a sin against rationality was because it takes our focus off of truth and insulates certain 'pet theories' from potential refutation. It's like saying "I've made up my mind about X, Y, and Z, and I refuse to countenance any evidence weighing against those opinions." Such dogmatism, Peirce held, is antithetical to the spirit of science. Ironically, in the name of promoting genuine "science", the mainstream scientific establishment wants to do the very thing that Peirce held to be fundamentally antithetical to science, i.e., block the road of inquiry. What they are saying, in effect, is that the only answers that will be tolerated are naturalistic answers.

But what if, in fact, some of the answers are not naturalistic? What if God really did have something to do with how things got to be the way they are? If that is so, then by embracing methodological naturalism the scientific community has guaranteed in advance that they will get the wrong answers to the questions in whatever areas God may have intervened. (And how can we know for sure in advance which areas those are?) Under this scenario, science could not be trusted to get the right answers, the true ones, because they scientific community isn't aimed at truth (whatever that may turn out to be), but rather at finding the best available naturalistic explanation. In other words, science will have been pressed into the service of insulating the 'pet theory' of naturalism from potential refutation.

The only way to have a globally truth-tropic science while restricting yourself to methodological naturalism is for metaphysical naturalism to be the case. If metaphysical naturalism is true then the natural world is all there was, is, and ever will be, in which case adopting methodological naturalism will tend to help science get to the truth rather than pull it away. But metaphysical naturalism is far from obviously true. Any suspicions we may have that metaphysical naturalism is not the case (and, as Intelligent Design theorists and other have repeatedly pointed out, there are plenty of grounds for suspicion) raise doubts about the extent to which a methodologically naturalistic "science" can be truth tropic, and consequently undermine the epistemic authority of such a "science". Such doubts won't bother those who are already convinced of metaphysical naturalism, but to define science in naturalistic terms completely begs the question against Intelligent Design theorists, who want to leave room for nonnaturalistic explanations should the evidence point that way.


At 1/18/2006 9:02 AM, Blogger Tom said...

Good thoughts, Alan. I appreciate them. Here’s my problem. I’m very interested in the relationship between Science and Faith. In particular, I’m interested in the question of the possible compatability of evolution and a biblical worldview based on the creation narratives and other theological claims made by biblical writers about creation (like Paul’s views in Rom. 5 that assume a literal Adam/Even and his view of “death” as the last enemy).

Without getting ahead of myself, my problem is that I’m just not qualified (and will never be) to study the science behind evolution and make my own independent judgment. I’m forced into having to trust the work of others. But I’m just unable to adjudicate the scientific claims. They’re way over my head. I read the arguments of evolutionists like Ken Brown (a biologist and person of faith) and I come away thinking evolution isn’t that big a deal. It’s compatible with faith in a personal, supernatural God. And I read other evolutionary theists explain the creation narratives and I tend to agree that it’s a plausible biblical view so far as Gen. 1-3 is concerned.

But then I read other assessments of various aspects of the evolutionary paradigm by non-evolutionists and come away thinking, “Gosh, this is JUST a theory, and it has some serious holes. It doesn’t explain A LOT. It’s far from proven." I just don’t know how to adjudicate the claims. So I’m forced (again) to decide what’s scientifically true based on the implications for theology and faith, and I’m uncomfortable doing that. I don’t deny the implications. I wanna face them straight on. But I don’t like basing my view of science solely on my faith commitments. But it doesn’t look like I’ll ever be able to do otherwise.

Back to Paul’s theological claims based on a literal, historical couple. Evolutionary theists have to discount this theological point since it rests entirely on something incompatible with evolution. Likewise, Paul’s theological claim that physical death in the cosmos is a foreign element introduced into the created order by human sinfulness. But here’s my problem. Evolution aside, it seems to me that death is just entropy working itself out in the physical world. With entropy the sun couldn’t heat the earth, seeded plants couldn’t reproduce themselves, etc. How can death (entropy) be introduced by human sinfulness if it predates humanity’s existence which an evolutionary paradigm certainly entails?


At 1/18/2006 3:35 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Tom,

You raise a number of issues and I'm not sure I can adequately address them all. Like you, I'm not a trained scientist. Nor am I a trained Biblical scholar. I'm a philosopher who is interested in matters scientific and in matters theological and in the connections between them.

That disclaimer aside, here are my views (for what they're worth). I think that Gen 1-11 can be plausibly reconciled with an old earth (4.5 billion years) and a local flood. I don't buy the view that death or entropy entered the world as the result of Adam's sin. As one commentator at the recent EPS conference pointed out, that position seems to entail the implausible idea that God orginally made the world to be tremendously "fragile", such that one person's actions in a far-off corner of the universe could completely alter the laws of physics across the whole universe. That scenario strikes me as just bad contingency planning on God's part.

As far as evolution goes, I think a Christian theist could, in principle, accept most of the standard naturalistic neo-Darwinian story. The one place, however, where I think a Christian would definitely have to part ways is over human origins. The Bible seems (to me at least) to be quite clear that human beings are made "in the image of God", whereas none of the other animals are. In others, words, the Bible seems to teach that there is a fundamental discontinuity between humans and the rest of the animals kingdom, a discontinuity that is hard to square with Darwinian gradualism ("from goo to you by way of the zoo"). So I think Ken Miller (I presume that's who you meant by "Ken Brown" since Miller teaches at Brown Univ.) goes too far in trying to accommodate Christianity to neo-Darwinism.

But while I think a Christian could in principle accept much of standard evolutionary theory, I think that there are many and pervasive difficulties with evolutionary theory. To my knowledge, abiogenesis, the relative paucity of macroevolutionary transition forms in the fossil record, the relative rapidity of the Cambrian explosion, the information content of DNA, and the existence of what appear to be "irreducibly complex" biomolecular processes are collectively sufficient to raise more than a little doubt about the adequacy of naturalism to account for life as we know it.

In sum, then, I think Christianity is compatible with most, but not all, of standard evolutionary theory. But given the long list of serious problems with evolutionary theory, I don't think a Christian should feel themselves under any strong epistemic obligations to accommodate as much of that theory as possible.

At 1/18/2006 8:54 PM, Blogger Tom said...

Ken Miller, yes. Not sure why I wrote Ken Brown. My memory must have stopped evolving some time ago.

Thanks for your thoughts Alan.


At 1/19/2006 11:38 AM, Blogger Ocham said...

I realised when I did a theology diploma 2 years ago that America and England are different places. This whole thing strikes English people as very, very strange.

My view, for what it's worth, is (i) that there is evidence, persuasive to some, that the biblical account of creation is false. Moreover, (ii) there is a very good explanation of why it is false, namely that someone made it up.

On the second point, moreover, there is additional, fairly strong evidence that it was in fact made up.

At 1/19/2006 1:06 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Thanks for the input, Ocham. For clarity's sake, what do you take "the biblical account of creation" to be? There are a variety of competing views as to just what the biblical account is.

At 1/20/2006 11:14 AM, Blogger Ocham said...

By 'the biblical account of creation' I mean the one found in Genesis 1, which says that the earth was created in 7 days, by first creating night and day, then the heaven and earth and sea, then sun and moon, then birds and fishes, then animals, then man and woman. There is also a second account in Gen. 2 in which there is a different order where man and woman are created directly after heaven and earth, then the trees and plants, and then the animals and birds.

These accounts are neither consistent with each other, nor with the commonly accepted account.

It is often said that these accounts should not be taken literally, but then how do you distinguish a literal meaning from a meaning?

Aquinas says (Summa I Q1 a10) that whereas in science things are signified by words, in holy scripture the things signified by words have a further signification. "While it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery", "We cannot be enlightened by the divine rays except they be hidden within the covering of many sacred veils".

However, when it comes to the exact location of paradise (I Q102 a1) he says that paradise is a corporeal place, located iin a hidden part of the earth, and quotes Augustine as saying that we must believe in the truth of the events narrated. " For whatever Scripture tells us about paradise is set down as matter of history; and wherever Scripture makes use of this method, we must hold to the historical truth of the narrative as a foundation of whatever spiritual explanation we may offer. And so paradise, as Isidore says (Etym. xiv, 3), "is a place situated in the east, its name being the Greek for garden." It was fitting that it should be in the east; for it is to be believed that it was situated in the most excellent part of the earth."

He says the reason topographers have not found paradise is that it is shut off from the habitable world by mountains, or seas, or some torrid region, which cannot be crossed; and so people who have written about topography make no mention of it.

At 1/20/2006 6:46 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...


You seem to take "the biblical account of creation" to be more-or-less what so-called Young-Earth Creationists (YEC) take it to be--6 literal 24-hours days of creative activity ordered as in Gen 1. You then distinguish this from the account given in Gen 2 and also from what you call "the commonly accepted account". What that refers to I have no idea.

Since I have no wish to delve into a debate over biblical exegesis with you, I'll simply add that from what I've read there are several plausible readings of Gen. 1-2 that reconcile the two accounts with each other and with an old age for the Earth. Personally, I'm attracted to the "Framework Hypothesis", which interprets Gen 1-3 topically rather than chronologically.

At 1/21/2006 4:23 AM, Blogger Ocham said...

Sorry, by the 'commonly accepted' account, I meant the one according to which the Earth is billions of years old, and in which the order is very different from the ones in Gen 1 or Gen 2, and in which other things like dinosaurs happen. I didn't use the term 'scientific account' for the reasons you alluded to in other postings. Aquinas says that Scripture is science. There is mathematics, music, biology &c and there is the study of holy Scripture. However, whereas some sciences proceed by the natural light of the intelligence, others proceed by the light of other sciences. Sacred doctrine is the latter, which proceeds from the science of God.

What is the framework hypothesis? And why do you prefer it to a 'face value' reading of Gen 1 or 2? Is it because there is evidence that the face value reading is false?

At 1/21/2006 12:59 PM, Blogger Aeolus said...

Newton famously wrote, "I have not as yet been able to discover the reason for these properties of gravity from phenomena, and I do not feign hypotheses. For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this philosophy particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction." Does this indicate that Newton was a methodological naturalist, despite his belief that God was the ultimate ground of existence? I'd be interested in your opinion.

At 1/21/2006 1:12 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

I don't have time right now to elaborate on the framework view. I first found out about it by reading this book. Of the three views discussed in the book, I wasn't very impressed with the presentation of the 24-hour view, and I thought that the defenders of the other two views argued plausibly for their positions.

At 1/21/2006 1:42 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi aeolos,

Good question. I'm not an expert on the history of science, but I do know that there has been quite a bit of discussion about what Newton meant by "I do not feign hypotheses". [I think--but I'm not sure off the top of my head--that this passage was added in one of the later editions of the Principia.]

If taken at face value, it would mean that Newton's theory of gravity was intended by him to be merely a descriptive attempt at "saving the phenomema", which would make Newton an instrumentalist. So construed, most scientists nowadays would reject that advice, as they routinuely propose hypotheses (quarks, string theory, etc.) that cannot be "deduced from the phenomena" and interpret them realistically, not instrumentally. My guess is that Newton is just being excessively cautious here because of flak he had received earlier from the Cartesian camp charging him with inventing "mysterious" action-at-a-distance forces like "gravity". (The Cartesians, who were very influential on the Continent at the time, absolutely rejected action-at-a-distance.)

In response to your question, then, I don't think Newton is advocating methodological naturalism here. At most he's advocating a globally non-realist or instrumentalist approach to science, but even that is questionable.

At 1/22/2006 4:15 AM, Blogger Ocham said...

But what on earth is the framework account for? Either the people who wrote the texts in question knew the actual facts of the matter, or not. If they did not, any such defence of their text is beside the point. If they did know, why did they write such things?

At 1/22/2006 5:10 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

No one's suggesting that the people who wrote the texts didn't know what they were intending to convey. The question is what were they intending to convey. When we look at the texts we tend to think that they were intended to lay out a detailed chronology of creation. The framework view challenges that assumption and contends that when the text is read in the way ancient semitic peoples would have read it, it becomes clear that the primary ordering principle of the narrative is topical rather than chronological. Here's a blurb from the book I linked to above:

"The framework view holds that the days of Genesis form a figurative framework in which the divine works of creation are narrated in a topical, rather than sequential, order. This view holds that the picture of God completing His work of creation in six days and resting on the seventh was not intended to reveal the sequence or duration of creation, but to proclaim an eschatological theology of creation."

At 1/22/2006 5:14 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Here's a link with some information about the framework view.

At 1/24/2006 11:34 AM, Blogger Ocham said...

Thanks for the link

At 3/22/2009 5:11 PM, Blogger imtoddp said...

Alan, my name's Todd and I found this blog quite by accident. I've been a lone ranger in a rather lengthy debate with an atheist blogger (
06/29/greg-koukl-christian-workshops-on-new-atheist-fallacies/#comments). In my persistent quest to bridge a gap between science and faith, so that I might score a few points for the Big Guy upstairs, I Googled 'Methodological Naturalism' which somehow led me to the framework view, which led me to you. The purpose of my post - 2-fold: 1) To say kudos for you and your I read your posts, you helped me ground my head-spinning post-atheism-debate hangover that made me feel incredibly inadequate when it came to science...your succinct style helped me sum up what I, too, believe...I just didn't know how to articulate it well, and 2) May I inquire if there is a repository of other postings you've done? Or articles you can direct me to? I'd just like to read more from you. I like your style. Thank you.

At 3/22/2009 5:15 PM, Blogger imtoddp said...

Alan, Todd here again. Sorry, if I would have explored the blog a little deeper, I would have found that I could find more you've written after clicking on your complete profile. I look forward to reading more of what you've written. Take care.


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