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.