Intelligent Design

Why the “Naturalism” Part of “Methodological Naturalism” is Both Misleading and Unnecessary

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As far as the practice of science is concerned, is there a practical difference between assuming the probability that a miracle will not occur is 1.00 and assuming the probability that a miracle will not occur is 0.9999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999?

Tom Gilson addresses this question in his contribution to Naturalism and Its Alternatives in Scientific Methodologies in a chapter entitled Methodological Naturalism, Methodological Theism, and Regularism.

Gilson starts off by quoting J. B. S. Haldane:

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

Notice Haldane’s false dichotomy:  We must either assume supernatural events never occur, or we must assume some supernatural agent might fiddle with every one of our experiments.  And if we assume the latter science – the study of natural regularities – is impossible.

Haldane’s dichotomy is false, because, as Gilson notes, there is a third option:  “that God established the natural order to work regularly almost all of the time but with extremely rare exceptions.”  If this is the case (and it is according to Christian doctrine), as a practical matter, there is no need to insert the metaphysical biases of either theism or naturalism into scientific methodology.

Why should we care if “naturalism” is inserted into the picture so long as it is of the “methodological” variety (assumed to be true for a limited purpose) as opposed to the ontological variety (asserted to be actually true)?  The answer is, as Haldane’s quote demonstrates, assuming a methodological naturalism inevitably leads down the slippery slope at the bottom of which is the unwarranted conclusion that science supports ontological naturalism.  It does not, but many people mistakenly believe that it does.

Gilson proposes “regularism” (“the methodological expectation of reliable regularity of cause and effect in nature”) as a metaphysically neutral alternative to methodological naturalism:

All that science requires is that nature operate regularly.  That’s all methodological naturalism provides, conceptually, for science.  Science does not require favoring one metaphysical viewpoint over another, provided that both are sufficiently orderly and regular . . . So I conclude here by proposing we drop all the “methodological” business— all the metaphysical trappings, too— and realize that science operates like all of life on an expectation of natural regularity.  If we must have an “ism” to describe it, let’s use regularism.

This is an excellent suggestion.  The success of science is not based on an assumption of atheism, as Haldane mistakenly believed.  It is based on the Christian idea that God established an orderly universe with natural regularities.  Science assumes regularity.  As a practical matter it matters not one whit why that regularity obtains.

As Chesterton wrote in “The Ethics of Elfland”:

We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception.

50 Replies to “Why the “Naturalism” Part of “Methodological Naturalism” is Both Misleading and Unnecessary

  1. 1
    tribune7 says:

    If one investigates events in nature then one by definition presumes a natural cause. This is appropriate. Observing-hypothesizing-testing i.e. the scientific method is a means of making this investigation.

    So practicing the scientific method presumes a natural cause and, appropriately rejects miracles.

    The problem comes when it is treated as an axiom that everything has a natural cause and the scientific method can provide all answers. This is a dogma based entirely on wishful thinking. It is actually anti-science in the same way trying to use a hammer to spot weld is anti-construction.

    One can use the scientific method to solve specific worldly problems and still believe that there is a Creator not subject to nature who sets our purpose and declares what’s right and wrong.

    To say that one must reject God — and the Bible — to be a scientist is anti-reason and rather sick.

  2. 2
    johnnyb says:

    tribune7 – it is not just that. There is no reason to assume that effects in nature have natural causes. The only presumption required for science is that they contain some regularities. The source of the regularity (material / immaterial) doesn’t matter for the methodology of science.

    The rest of the book contains multiple chapters on how non-naturalistic events can be analyzed and used to good effect in science and engineering.

  3. 3
    johnnyb says:

    tribune7 –

    You might be interested in my talk Solving Engineering Problems Using Theology as well as checking out the Naturalism and Its Alternatives book on Amazon.

  4. 4
    EricMH says:

    If we consider the range of possible mathematical models to describe natural phenomena, the naturalistic ones are an extremely small subset. It is extremely biased, then, to claim only naturalistic models are admissible.

  5. 5
    EricMH says:

    Additionally, non-materialism has already snuck into physics through any kind of action at a distance, such as gravity and magnetism. Furthermore, if Hume is correct, cause and effect are non-naturalistic, and even more fundamentally, any correlation is non-naturalistic. Then the entire scientific method is non-naturalism in disguise.

  6. 6
    tribune7 says:

    Very interesting talk JohnnyB. I see your point regarding the assumption of natural cause especially in context with ID albeit even there there is specifically not an assumption of a supernatural one.

    It’s funny and sad that if one accepts the existence of God as axiomatic, then this little discussion becomes moot.

    Why did the bridge collapse? You assume a natural cause in the investigation and not gremlins. Why do people die at a higher than expected rate when they are in proximity to the forbidden swamp? You assume a natural reason and not evil spirits.

    And of course why is killing people wrong to harvest their organs? Because our Creator says so.

    One of the great ironies I sometimes consider is what would have happened if James Randi ever did get stumped by a “miracle”. Would it have meant he came into contact with the divine or merely a better magician?

  7. 7
    LocalMinimum says:

    Johnny B:

    Interesting points, especially in that the regularity that you point out as the (useful) point of methodical naturalism is actually threatened by various naturalistic schemes involving spontaneous/”something from ‘nothing'” origins of the universe.

    I would expect that, in general, an intelligence that decides when and when not to create a universe is going to be far more regular than a metaphysical froth of bubbling universes.

    Of course, once you start having to approach and compare the structure and properties of your meta-universal bubble machine the ‘naturalism’ in your “methodical naturalism” just becomes a euphemism for “whatever may suit my Epicurean philosophical palate.”

  8. 8
    EricMH says:

    Tribune7: What if the bridge collapsed due to sabotage? If we can only assume natural causes we will never be able to explain why the bridge collapsed.

    What if people get sick because they are being poisoned? Again, natural causes will never get us an answer.

  9. 9
    tribune7 says:

    EricMH — What if the bridge collapsed due to sabotage?

    If one were to assume a supernatural reason one would never determine sabotage.

    Saboteurs are part of nature as are poisoners.

    Design exists in nature else science would not be able to address it. 🙂

  10. 10
    EricMH says:

    How do you explain the saboteurs according to natural causes? You cannot. By including the saboteurs in your definition of “naturalism” you sneak in non-naturalism, just like the rest of science. The only reason methodological naturalism succeeds is because it is not consistently naturalistic.

  11. 11
    asauber says:

    How do you explain the saboteurs according to natural causes?

    The Sabotage Particle – Dawkinses next book. 😉

    Andrew

  12. 12
    tribune7 says:

    EricMH — How do you explain the saboteurs according to natural causes?

    A saboteur is by definition human. Humans are part of nature. If a saboteur blew up the bridge it is a natural cause.

    Now how would assuming a supernatural cause in the destruction of a bridge led to finding the sabotage?

    More significantly, how could assuming a supernatural cause in the destruction of a bridge led to finding the sabotage?

  13. 13
    EricMH says:

    What is the saboteur gene, particle, wave, chemical reaction, etc.? Without those, it is not a naturalistic theory. You have to explain the saboteur’s behavior by his goal. Naturalism is non-teleological, so cannot have goals. You are sneaking in teleology.

  14. 14
    tribune7 says:

    EricMH, you are playing word games.

    Are human beings part of nature?

    Again to the point, how would you find sabotage with the assumption of a supernatural cause?

  15. 15
    tribune7 says:

    ErichMH — The bridge collapses. Assuming the supernatural, will never lead you to understand that the cause was an explosive chemical reaction in a strategic place.

    Assuming the supernatural will also not lead you to understand that it was a human being that placed it.

    Now, if are making the argument that the scientific method cannot lead us to understand why that person placed the bomb, I am in agreement, and it may not even be the best way to find out who.

    The scientific method is just a single investigative tool. It cannot reveal all truth and as noted earlier is not always appropriate.

    Just the same, if you are investigating a bridge collapse you reject supernatural causes.

  16. 16
    asauber says:

    the cause

    tribune7,

    And the explosive chemical reaction wasn’t spontaneous. It was caused by a sabotage-minded someone.

    Andrew

  17. 17
    EricMH says:

    Then we agree that naturalism cannot explain everything in nature, and we agree that we can explain a bridge collapse with the why and who of a human agent. You just choose to not call the latter explanation supernatural, since a human is embodied in nature. However, the causal agency that is ultimately responsible for the bridge collapse is the human’s desires, reason and free will, none of which can be explained naturalistically, as they cannot be reduced to genes, particles, chemical reactions, etc. They can only be explained supernaturally. Thus, the full explanation for the bridge collapse requires a supernatural explanation and we must assume the supernatural.

  18. 18
    johnnyb says:

    I think the issue is that many in the ID movement consider the human soul to be just as supernatural as anything can be, while tribune7 does not. What isn’t supernatural about the soul?

  19. 19
    tribune7 says:

    Andrew, so how is a presumption of the supernatural going to lead to learn how the bridge fell. In fact, is not rejecting the presumption of the supernatural lead you to the explanation of the falling bridge ?

  20. 20
    asauber says:

    the explanation

    An explanation requires the entire causal chain. If you want to limit your inquiry to materials used, you are incomplete, and you have something other than an explanation.

    Andrew

  21. 21
    tribune7 says:

    ErichMH (and JohnnyB)

    –Then we agree that naturalism cannot explain everything in nature–

    I think I’ve been consistent there.

    –we agree that we can explain a bridge collapse with the why and who of a human agent.–

    Sure.

    –You just choose to not call the latter explanation supernatural–

    Because it misuses the word and causes confusion. Here is a common dictionary definition: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/supernatural

    The word itself comes from the 1400s and refers to things beyond nature.
    http://www.etymonline.com/inde.....pernatural

    If someone burned down his neighbor’s farm or cut off his neighbor’s head the arbiters of meanings back in the day would have called the event natural not supernatural.

    The arbiters of meanings today, in fact, would call the event natural not supernatural.

    Are you both claiming that common crimes are “supernatural” events?

    If you are saying that man-made acts are supernatural, you should be charged with language torture.

  22. 22
    tribune7 says:

    Andrew, man-made events are never ever considered supernatural when using the English language.

  23. 23
    asauber says:

    tribune7,

    I’m not sure if language usage is relevant. Human beings and human activity are not strictly natural.

    Natural is not a scientific concept, so ultimately, we are into the same old philosophical issues.

    Andrew

  24. 24
    tribune7 says:

    Andrew, how can you communicate if you don’t have agreement on the meaning of words?

    I am not a materialist. I believe in God and prayer. But right now I am in a dispute regarding my point that investigations specific to nature should not consider the supernatural, and I can’t see where the controversy is.

    I think the problem facing our culture which we are all stuck with is that science (i.e. natural science) has been removed from its humble, useful place and put in a position as arbiter of all truth.

  25. 25
    EricMH says:

    Tribune7, by ‘natural’ I mean entirely explainable by the laws of physics. The soul cannot be reduced to the laws of physics, therefore it is beyond ‘natural’. ‘Supernatural’ means beyond natural.

    While you may use the words differently, this is the meaning of ‘nature’ in the term ‘methodological naturalism’. It means the phenomena of question can be entirely explained by physical laws. If we must use something other than physical laws to explain the phenomena, then methodological naturalism no longer suffices.

    Consequently, the physical actions of supernatural entities can be detected scientifically, such as the human soul, angels, demons and even God.

    ID mostly focuses on the detection of intelligent agency in the origin of biological structure. If there is indeed a guiding purpose to the development of structure, then there are empirical implications, such as most of the structure will be meaningful instead of random. This hypothesis is borne out by the findings of the ENCODE project. So, a theory of methodological naturalism, namely Darwinian evolution, has been empirically falsified, showing we need a supernatural theory for the origin of biological structure.

    In short, methodological naturalism has failed, and we must assume the supernatural in order to scientifically explain the natural world.

  26. 26
    tribune7 says:

    ErichMH, I’m using the word as per the dictionary and tradition, and I’m trying to keep it very practical.

    Again, I see the problem not that natural science purposely restricts itself to non-supernatural explanations but that some have elevated natural science as the arbiter for explaining everything.

    This is bad.

    I think it is very important to strip it of this false authority and return it to its rightful, useful place.

    Truthfully — even according to my viewpoint — “God did it” can explain everything.

    But what’s the point?

    And remember, ID takes great pains to avoid referring to “the supernatural”. Super smart aliens could — according to the theory — have designed life. The power ID has is that it shows that life objectively has the characteristics of highly designed objects rather than those that occur via random events or undirected laws of nature.

  27. 27
    tribune7 says:

    Erich, instead of using “science” how about you use “reason”?

    Reason guides us to God. Only a fool in his heart says there is no God?

  28. 28
    EricMH says:

    tribune7, whether you see the restriction of science to be a problem or not, it is true that the restriction of science to naturalism as I’ve defined is not warranted.

    Naturalism actually boils down to “chaos did it”, and all the order you reference in your arguments is non-naturalism. ID takes great pains to avoid referring to “the supernatural,” but as I’ve defined the intelligent agency cannot be natural.

    You may not like my definitions, and consider them impractical, but what I state is true.

  29. 29
    tribune7 says:

    Erich, how about that we simply understand that natural science and the philosophy of naturalism are different things and that the philosophy of naturalism is wrong?

  30. 30
    Jon Garvey says:

    Tribune7, by ‘natural’ I mean entirely explainable by the laws of physics. The soul cannot be reduced to the laws of physics, therefore it is beyond ‘natural’. ‘Supernatural’ means beyond natural.

    As ever (and as Tom Gilson recognises) the misleading idea is that word “natural”. All it can really mean, empirically, is “that which happpens regularly and predictably.” Those regularities we then codify as “laws” – but to say that the laws of physics explain the regularities is just to turn the deduction into a cause.

    When JohnnyB says

    There is no reason to assume that effects in nature have natural causes

    it tends to confuse by implying there is some objective meaning to “natural” other than “regular” – such as “autonomous of God”. If God brings about changes regularly (whether directly or indirectly is of no matter), then that makes them able to be codified as “laws” – which would then mean simply, “God’s ways of working regularly”. You could call that “natural”, but it’s questionable whether one can fully escape the Deistic baggage the word carries now.

    God’s ways of working irrregularly or contingently need to be distinguished in some way, but they wouldn’t be “super-” (ie “more than”) natural, any more than my making an exception to my regular mealtime requires a special explanation or justification.

  31. 31

    The bigger logical fallacy committed by Gilson and other “naturalists” is the completely unwarranted association of the regularity and predictability of phenomena with atheism in the first place. Why should matter and energy unconstrained and unguided by intelligently imposed order and purpose behave in any regular, intelligently comprehensible manner at all? “Regularity” doesn’t indicate atheism; rather, it strongly indicates theism.

    After all, there are far, far more ways for matter and energy to act in incomprehensible, irregular ways than for them to act in comprehensible, regular ways – sort of like how many variations of a protein sequence can perform any work, or how many variations of squiggly lines can be useful as a meaningful, descriptive language. Physical laws are order and purpose imposed on the universe as a form of language we can learn.

  32. 32
    EugeneS says:

    tribune7

    “So practicing the scientific method presumes a natural cause and, appropriately rejects miracles.”

    The beginning of ‘nature’ cannot be ‘natural’ by necessity. Since the nature had a beginning, this beginning was other than natural. I don’t know what views you hold on the subject but here are the two logical options:
    (i) either recognize the above problem with naturalism in explaining how a universe that had a beginning came about or
    (ii) don’t say that the universe had a beginning (in which case all that is really done is attributing divine properties to matter).

    So the scientific method is not strictly applicable to the question, ‘how did it all start?’. Naturalism is fine but it has its area of expertise and limitations. That’s all.

  33. 33
    tribune7 says:

    EugeneS –I don’t think we disagree.

  34. 34
    tribune7 says:

    EugeneS et al — BTW, if one demands a strict definition of natural science the Theory of Evolution flies out the window. It can ber neither duplicated nor observed.

    IOW, it’s not science.

  35. 35
    EricMH says:

    tribune7, evolution is a historical discipline, but it uses methodological naturalism to restrict historical explanations to naturalism. Same as the historians who explain away Jesus’ resurrection

  36. 36
    tribune7 says:

    EricMH — yes.

    I think it appropriate to point out that those who hold evolution as dogma insisting that it is the only explanation for the development and diversity of life are anti-science.

    I’ll go further and say that methodological naturalism is anti-science in that it expands a tool designed to investigate consistencies in nature, a tool which is only capable of doing that one thing, into things it can’t do and then insist that we accept their authority as to interpreting the conclusions the come up with regardless of how nonsensical or contradictory they might be. As I noted it’s akin to use a hammer to spot weld.

  37. 37
    Seversky says:

    Methodological naturalism does not exclude supernatural explanations without reason. It asks what is meant by “supernatural” and why we should assume it exists at all? If there is no satisfactory answer to both questions then there is nothing there worth considering as having any explanatory power.

    If you want to believe in miracles, Biblical or otherwise, that’s your choice. If you want to persuade me that someone called Jesus was the Son of God manifested on Earth who was executed and rose from the dead, you are going to have to do a lot better than self-serving Gospel accounts.

  38. 38
    tribune7 says:

    –Methodological naturalism does not exclude supernatural explanations without reason. It asks what is meant by “supernatural”–

    It does not ask. It tells, demands, orders. If you want to believe the complexity that exists came about by chance and in violation of existing laws of physics you are not rational.

    You are the one who should be on the outs not the ones who think that something exists that can’t be determined via the tools used to investigate nature, and that this something created us and has a purpose for us beyond fulfilling our desires and self-interests.

    Methodological naturalism is not science or reason. I’m not even sure its fair to honor it as faith. It’s actually akin to superstition based wishful thinking.

  39. 39
    EricMH says:

    seversky makes a valid point – it is useless to assert a supernatural cause if it is not clearly defined and testable. Otherwise it is like saying “blarg did it.”

  40. 40
    hnorman5 says:

    There’s scientific evidence for design and intelligence in the natural world but the issue of whether it’s supernatural is more of a philosophical question. Both types of argument are appropriate here though.

  41. 41
    kairosfocus says:

    F/N: As this is in the general context of design inferences, I note, there are definite empirically reliable signs of intelligently directed configuration as cause. Cause in the sense of process. To empirically observe such a tested and reliable sign indicates that we have designing intelligence at work, e.g. a sufficiently long text string that functions as linguistic information or as algorithmic code. Inference to intelligent design on reliable sign is not inference to any one designer or class of designers, whether within the observed physical cosmos or not. It is to identify that, credibly, the causal process involves intelligently directed configuration. Then, we may consider context and other issues to address candidate designers, similar to how one detects arson before inquiring as to suspect arsonists. Of course a lurking issue is that many objectors violently reject the POSSIBILITY of a designer of the cosmos or of cell based life, both of which show many manifest signs pointing to design. That becomes a problem of imposed ideology censoring inference on evidence, as can be shown. In such a context so-called methodological naturalism is a convenient cover for the real problem, redefining science as applied evolutionary materialist atheism dressed up in a lab coat. That needs to be exposed and answered on its own self-falsification, as it cannot even account for a credible, rationally and responsibly free, knowing mind. The very mind we need to do science in the first place. KF

  42. 42
    kairosfocus says:

    PS: We may note the US National Science Teachers’ Association [NSTA] in a notorious July 2000 Board declaration:

    The principal product of science is knowledge in the form of naturalistic concepts and the laws and theories related to those concepts [–> ideological imposition of a priori evolutionary materialistic scientism, aka natural-ISM; this is of course self-falsifying at the outset] . . . .

    [S]cience, along with its methods, explanations and generalizations, must be the sole focus of instruction in science classes to the exclusion of all non-scientific or pseudoscientific [–> loaded word that cannot be properly backed up due to failure of demarcation arguments] methods, explanations, generalizations and products [–> declaration of intent to ideologically censor education materials] . . . .

    Although no single universal step-by-step scientific method captures the complexity of doing science, a number of shared values and perspectives characterize a scientific approach to understanding nature. Among these are a demand for naturalistic explanations supported by empirical evidence that are, at least in principle, testable against the natural world. Other shared elements include observations, rational argument, inference, skepticism, peer review and replicability of work [–> undermined by the question-begging ideological imposition and associated censorship] . . . .

    Science, by definition, is limited to naturalistic methods and explanations and, as such, is precluded from using supernatural elements [–> question-begging false dichotomy, the proper contrast for empirical investigations is the natural (chance and/or necessity) vs the ART-ificial, through design . . . cf UD’s weak argument correctives 17 – 19, here] in the production of scientific knowledge.

    That is what we are dealing with, and it is obviously not a reasonable position to take.

  43. 43
    Heartlander says:

    An algorithmic system and/or system of postulates requires some basic assumptions which are taken as given – so naturalism requires at least a single miracle (the origin of the postulates) at the beginning. Put more broadly, natural processes cannot create natural processes (circulus in probando) – so we are left with creation from the supernatural.

    Futhermore, methodological naturalism cannot incorporate human consciousness (mind), abstract concepts, or information (all immaterial), which are measured differently from mass or energy– yet these are the very tools required for methodological naturalism to exist.

    “When we force science to adhere to naturalism, it requires scientists to simply ascribe supernatural powers to ordinary matter.”
    – Arminius Mignea

  44. 44
    tribune7 says:

    KF– you get to point, perfectly:

    –Of course a lurking issue is that many objectors violently reject the POSSIBILITY of a designer of the cosmos or of cell based life, both of which show many manifest signs pointing to design. That becomes a problem of imposed ideology censoring inference on evidence, as can be shown. In such a context so-called methodological naturalism is a convenient cover for the real problem, redefining science as applied evolutionary materialist atheism dressed up in a lab coat. That needs to be exposed and answered on its own self-falsification, as it cannot even account for a credible, rationally and responsibly free, knowing mind.–

    The battle is one of who gets to define words hence morals, values and how we should behave. It’s a political one with very base and selfish motives. It’s not about who has the best model in describing reality.

  45. 45
    EricMH says:

    @Heartlander, great point, never seen it put like that!

    For those who want to claim design without a supernatural cause, the problem is this means design can come from a material cause, such as evolution. So, ID doesn’t provide anything interesting.

  46. 46
    Heartlander says:

    Eric – you’ve got a great point also… maybe you can grow some hair to cover it up – or just sit in a corner wearing it…

  47. 47

    H @ 43: Love the Mignea quote! Thanks for sharing.

  48. 48
    hnorman5 says:

    As for myself, I have some strong faith-based views that design comes from a higher power. However, I have long subscribed to what I thought was the orthodox ID position that it was beyond the scope of science to determine the nature of the designer. A corrolary to that would be that the natural/supernatural distinction would not be a legitimate field of inquiry for science. As Seversky noted at 37 and Eric at 39, just defining the terms is a problem, and I would add that that’s just the tip of the iceberg. However, I’m seeing more philosophy based arguments and I’ll give some thought to them.

  49. 49
    kairosfocus says:

    HN5: The design inference is — per empirical, tested, reliable signs — to intelligently directed configuration as relevant causal process. Thus, design as opposed to designer. Design as process does entail capable designer as source, but we are only at there has been arson. Identifying a set of candidate designers or arsonists, much less warranting a chief candidate is a separate issue. However, those who want to rhetorically object by appeal to prejudice against the “supernatural” routinely insist on setting up a loaded strawman caricature. This, beyond a certain point becomes willful speaking with disregard to truth in hope of profiting from what is said or suggested being taken as true. Calculated deceit, or at minumum propagation of calculated deceit in the teeth of patent duties of care. But then, such seems to now be a characteristic mode of operation for far too many in our dying civilisation. KF

    PS: As an illustration, any number of times over years, I have pointed out that a molecular nanotech lab some generations beyond Venter would suffice as a candidate for cell based life as we see it. Origin of a fine tuned cosmos set to a deeply isolated operating point for C-Chem, aqueous medium cell based life is a different matter. I therefore find it interesting in a saddening sense, that the distinction is routinely ignored by objectors.

  50. 50
    EricMH says:

    @Heartlander, I was not being sarcastic. Your point is valid, scientific positivism is not self justifying. I liked how you tied that observation to the discussion of methodological naturalism.

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