Methodological naturalism does far more than “not study the supernatural.”

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Recently Jon Garvey, who often offers helpful comments here, alerted me to two posts he had written but a year ago at Hump of the Camel on theistic evolution, and I commend them to your attention (here and here).

One comment set me thinking:

Methodological naturalism simply says that science cannot study the supernatural.

Okay, but wait a minute. In practice, that means far more than we usually suppose.

As I have asked earlier, why is the space alien science, but Bigfoot non- or anti-science? Neither clearly involves the supernatural. There is no reliable evidence for either. But one is grandfathered by methodological naturalism and the other isn’t.

If Earth isn’t unique, as methodological naturalism’s Copernican Principle states, then the space alien is highly likely to exist. Bigfoot isn’t so lucky. Nothing much is at stake whether he exists or not.

Methodological naturalism does far more than not “study the supernatural.” It stands in for evidence in a variety of science settings. In so doing, it alters the direction of science in perceptible ways.

Vince Torley pointed recently to Kelvin, Maxwell, or Joule as scientists who were Christians, who did not think that science is done by ignoring God. True, but much is lost by treating this matter defensively.

Instead, let us ask, would Kelvin, Maxwell, or Joule have had much time for the multiverse or the space aliens hiding in our junk DNA? No? Why not?

They need not invoke the existence of God against these concepts. The concepts are consistent with God. They would likely invoke the standard that evidence rules, under God. If there is no evidence for these entities, we cannot invoke them in accordance with a principle that assumes a God-free cosmos. Which, as we shall see, also means in practice an “order-free” cosmos.

To understand the role of methodological naturalism, we need to see the full picture. Not only what it forbids, but what it permits and encourages. And what the evidence status of the permitted and encouraged stuff is.

Note: Theistic evolution and I go back a long way. I first learned it when I started writing science news for a Christian paper, and soon found myself in the company of pleasant, well-meaning Christians in science who introduced me to methodological naturalism. That, they claimed, enabled them to do science without conflict or persecution.

I would have thought the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was responsible for that state of affairs. But that just showed how little I knew. I had yet to encounter the Darwin lobby, and similar bands of intellectual thugs. Or their apologists in Christian circles. Once I encountered them, I knew something was badly wrong. It didn’t help that most Christians who were writers just avoided the whole area. It wasn’t until recently that I knew enough to start asking questions, and I mean to continue.

4 Replies to “Methodological naturalism does far more than “not study the supernatural.”

  1. 1

    Although they call it “methodological naturalism”, what is really standing in for evidence is metaphysical naturalism. That’s the only way one can get to the copernican principle narratives, as there is no methodological analysis or evidence that could bring one to such conclusions. Metaphysical naturalism is also responsible for the belief in the creative powers of random mutation and natural selection, where the methodology produces mo supportive evidence nor even attempts to validate the metaphysical claim.

    If one asserts that methodological naturalism cannot investigate the supernatural, then one is obligated to first define “supernatural” (without circularity, such as “that which cannot be studied by science”), and then explain why the supernatural cannot be studied scientifically.

    IMO, the term “supernatural”, for materialists, is better defined as “that which my metaphysics doesn’t allow”. IOW, in their mind, “real” science cannot study anything they believe doesn’t exist, which is why the “pseudoscience” tag and a hefty does of ridicule is deposited on things ranging from UFOs to crop circles to bigfoot to ghosts to demonic possession to intelligent design to new-age manifestation techniques to homeopathy.

    The materialists have carved out a metaphysical domain beyond which (they insist) scientific investigation is either impossible or fraudulent.

  2. 2
    Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks for the plug, Denise. Another recent “Hump” piece on methodological naturalism here.

  3. 3
    bornagain77 says:

    Atheists may insist that science must include methodological naturalism as its premise, but science itself says “I have no need for that hypothesis’,,,

    Bohemian Gravity – Rob Sheldon – September 19, 2013
    Excerpt: Quanta magazine carried an article about a hypergeometric object that is as much better than Feynman diagrams as Feynman was better than Heisenberg’s S-matrices. But the discoverers are candid about it,
    “The amplituhedron, or a similar geometric object, could help by removing two deeply rooted principles of physics: locality and unitarity. “Both are hard-wired in the usual way we think about things,” said Nima Arkani-Hamed, a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and the lead author of the new work, which he is presenting in talks and in a forthcoming paper. “Both are suspect.””
    What are these suspect principles? None other than two of the founding principles of materialism–that there do not exist “spooky-action-at-a-distance” forces, and that material causes are the only ones in the universe.,,,

    Quantum Mechanics – Double Slit Experiment. Is anything real? (Prof. Anton Zeilinger) – video

    Prof. Zeilinger makes this rather startling statement in the preceding video:

    “The path taken by the photon is not an element of reality. We are not allowed to talk about the photon passing through this or this slit. Neither are we allowed to say the photon passes through both slits. All this kind of language is not applicable.”
    Anton Zeilinger

    Divinely Planted Quantum States – video

    Dr. Eben Alexander Says It’s Time for Brain Science to Graduate From Kindergarten – 10/24/2013
    Excerpt: As long as scientists hold onto that simplistic (materialistic) thinking they are going to be mired down to never, ever explain consciousness or the enigmas of quantum mechanics. But there are a lot of scientists out there who do get it,,,
    The pure scientific materialist model that I worshiped for so many years has absolutely nothing to offer up in terms of explaining how consciousness might emerge from the physical brain.,,, consciousness is a far deeper, more profound mystery than “kindergarten level” scientific materialism offers up.
    Now that’s why I include in my book the hard problem of consciousness and the enigma of quantum mechanics.,,,
    It’s time for brain science, mind science, physics, cosmology, to move from kindergarten up into first grade and realize we will never truly understand consciousness with that simplistic materialist mindset.
    Of note: Dr. Alexander is working on a new book he says will unpack the science behind his recently adopted theories on brain, consciousness, and spirituality.

  4. 4
    johnnyb says:

    Another important point is how does science know if it is studying the supernatural? In order to do this, science would need to detect whether or not a given effect that it is studying is the result of the supernatural or not. Without a rigorous definition, you can’t say “science doesn’t study the supernatural”, because then you are giving a conclusion (these things aren’t supernatural) rather than a methodological statement.

    Slightly better would be to say that the results of methodological naturalism only apply where the supernatural is not involved (though a definition of the supernatural is still painfully needed). However, in this case, science is actually by its own account untrustworthy, leaving *anyone* free to disregard *any* finding of science by invoking the supernatural, and no scientist operating under methodological naturalism could object.

    Personally, I think “natural” and “supernatural” are both unhelpful terms. If we were more explicit with our terminology, we might make better progress. If our terms do not have a method of distinguishment, then there is not a reason to categorize into either one.

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