BWhite's Objections to Methodological Naturalism

MN forces us to start with a conclusion. Science cannot be forced to start with a conclusion. Science only cares about one thing- reality. As in there is one and only one reality behind the existence of whatever it is being investigated. And MN is telling us differently.

‘Proving ID’ may be counter to God’s purposes. Why I am a providentialist is relevant to the conversation.


No. It starts with a definition. The Christian philosophers who worked so very hard to develop what became modern science and the Scientific Method realized that most of the time what we are observing in our world is happening due to the natural processes which God ordained. They never denied that it was within the purview of philosophy and theology to consider what, why, and how a transcendent God interacts with his creation. Instead, they determined that science could provide the most productive explanations and insights if it focused solely on natural processes and causes. They also assumed (based upon Biblical revelation) that God’s transcendence typically set him apart from empirical detection in contrast to other kinds of causes, the non-supernatural causes God established in the world. (They certainly didn’t deny divine miracles. They did decide that explaining natural processes as individual acts of divine intervention got them nowhere.)

I suppose that could be said of Philosophy—but not science. There are many realities which Science cannot detect empirically and therefore doesn’t care about. (I’ve listed some of those categories and examples in past threads on PeacefulScience.) Science is limited. Science only cares about that which can be explained by natural processes. That’s why science can explain the realities of evaporation and condensation in the meteorological descriptions of rain showers but not God’s providential role in sending rain on the just and the unjust. (Matthew 5:45) That’s where theology and philosophy come in. Those academic disciplines involve much broader boundaries and different methodologies than science. So let’s not give science more authority or explanatory power than what it actually has.

I would say that Science mostly cares about evidence. (Yes, that was meant to sound like an understatement.)

No. Methodological Naturalism doesn’t tell anybody what they can or cannot do in trying to understand reality. It is simply a set of tools and procedures which recognize the limitations of science. We don’t expect geometry to explain all of reality—so why should we expect science (i.e., Methodological Naturalism) to do so?

With that said, I remain entirely open to the groundbreaking discovery that divine intervention will someday be detectable by some empirical means. (I’m doubtful that that will happen before the Second Coming but a humble human must always be open to new discoveries.) And as Francis Collins likes to say, “Bring me my angel detector!” So far, ID has failed to deliver the goods.

I do realize that “ID theory” claims to be about the use of scientific methodologies to detect intelligent agency and not necessarily just God per se. Even so, one can hardly escape noticing that in the many years that “ID theory” has been promoted, there have been no breakthroughs in detecting intelligent agency—especially those which have revolutionized the work of anthropologists, geologists, and forensic scientists who must routinely determine whether a given object or phenomenon was caused by intelligent agents versus by natural physical/chemical processes.

Ditto for me. I wish @pnelson and Dr. Gauger the very best as they pursue these topics. As a born-again Christ-follower, I would be delighted at any discovery which helps us to better understand God’s interaction with the universe he created. I still think that most of what I’ve seen published by ID proponents is more about philosophy than science (even if those philosophical investigations involve science topics) but I would be very excited by an actual “ID theory” breakthrough, one that would make predictions and be subject to falsification testing.


(Note my reply to @Ashwin_s.)

No, MN starts with a conclusion- that of it has to be naturalistic processes- which is too vague to be useful.

Science cannot explain life via natural processes. It cannot explain life’s diversity via naturalistic processes. And it cannot explain nature via naturalistic processes

Help me to understand your position. Do you believe that the many centuries of Christian philosophers who developed methodological naturalism and what became the modern definition of science were somehow “leaving out God” and were creating ambiguity/vagueness rather than trying to resolve it?

If that is your position, do you have any opinions about what motivated them to do that?

I’m struggling to understand your view because it sounds so counter to all of my studies in the history of Christian thought and the philosophy of science.

(I freely acknowledge that I may be misunderstanding you in major ways. So by all means correct me and modify my summary of your position as you deem appropriate.)


This is why I asked the following, above:

I believe that many take this aspect of MN too far. I believe that it is the practice of invoking God as the solution where a material solution cannot be identified that is precluded by MN. Not the empirical verification or validity that God did something. This is why people here continue to demand of ID supporters that they “show us.”

ID is not about God. ID does not require God.

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Isaac Newton did not use MN. I will side with the greatest scientist our planet ever knew. Thank you.

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What if it turns out in the future that it can? Would that devastate your faith? Is not God’s providence capable of arranging atoms and molecules in a one-time occurrence?

Promissory notes? That isn’t science, Dale.

I’m not saying science can or will, but what if it does? Would your faith be devastated?

Why do you say that? Have you ever read his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, especially where he discussed his Universal Law of Gravitation for the first time?

I would agree.

In fairness, however, we can’t help but observe that in actual practice a lot of ID proponents and their organizations are very much motivated by theological apologetics. For example, one only need look at their promotional literature and fundraising campaigns to notice that the original and/or theoretical “purity” of intelligent design investigations are not always preserved. We also notice that a lot of ID material is written for, published toward, and promoted to lay theists rather than to the broader acadeic community and peer-review. (I’m not saying that that targeting is necessarily a bad thing. I’m simply observing that it has become a huge part of the ID Movement.)


Okay, in the spirit of the thread (finding common narrative) can you drop your guard for a second and play along? The point of what I said was not about God vs. an intelligence…

Instead, it was about MN’s reluctance to consider an intelligence as an ad hoc solution when a material solution cannot be identified vs. the ability of scientists to pursue any experimental means or hypotheses that they wish.

Do you honestly think that if any group were able to show experimentally and verifiably that “an intelligence” was responsible for some function or act that the science world would stand up in a unified manner and proclaim that the findings were not legitimate because of the rules of MN? If the science is good, then the results need to be accepted. Otherwise, you can call out a double-standard.

Yes, MN doesn’t allow for any sort of God-of-the-gaps, but that never precludes anyone from searching and experimenting, and, if they find significant results, from publishing them.


No, methodological naturalism is a method that only investigates naturalistic causes. It doesn’t say there only ARE naturalistic causes, only that it can only investigate naturalistic ones.

Anyone is welcome to try to investigate non-naturalistic causes if they want to.

It can do all three. The question is if those explanations are true, which requires a lot of research to determine. But it certainly can, in principle, explain these with natural processes.


It’s not a conclusion, it’s an assumption.

This is interesting, but would you mind explaining what you’re basing it on? I bolded one sentence as the idea seems rather implausible to me, in short, rather like a just so story. On the other hand if I’m wrong and there are some things you could point to to substantiate it, I’m definitely interested.

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My studies in the History & Philosophy of Science (and courses in the history of western thought) were a very long time ago but I’ll try to summarize. What we now call science was originally a branch of philosophy: Natural Philosophy. (By the way, this also explains why even today the terminal degree in the sciences is the Ph.D., Doctor of Philosophy.) For centuries Natural Philosophy mostly involved applying the Bible, Aristotle, Plato, and other ancient wise ones to the natural world. Even when various philosophers of the Middle Ages started emphasizing actual observations of the physical world, there was still the a priori assumption that Graeco-Roman and Christian theology must guide all understanding of that world.

Paracelsus was among those who had the gall to assert that one should put those ancient explanations to the test by conducting experiments. He famously wrote something like “Experiments are the greatest masters of everything.” (The fact that he wrote and lectured about his experiments in German instead of Latin was a big deal in the early 1500’s and underscores how he wanted to see natural philosophy distinguished from traditional philosophy.)

Roger Bacon also comes to mind among those who recognized that simply citing something from Aristotle or a theologian’s interpretation of the Bible was what we today would call “a science stopper.” Why investigate combustion if Empedocles had already established that everything was made of four elements (water, earth, fire, and air) and Aristotle had further described them as moist, dry, hot, and cold respectively?

There was a powerful belief that God had imparted special wisdom not only to the Bible’s authors but also to the authors of classical Greco-Roman literature (which the Church worked hard to copy and preserve.) Nevertheless, over time there was a growing recognition that the Bible was more focused on the relationship between God and his Imago Dei creation than on describing the details of how the natural world operates. And as alchemists gathered more and more knowledge of actual chemistry—and even developed new medicinal cures—it became clear that various phenomena which may have previously seemed “miraculous” could actually be artificially induced and explained through natural processes. (Paracelsus has been called the father of modern pharmacology.) As empirical knowledge increased, there was less and less of a need to appeal to the supernatural and “magick” to explain that which was not yet understood. Christian philosophers also asserted that a rational God created a rational world which he wanted humans to understand. So the pursuit of scientific knowledge became a quest to understand the rationality which God had placed in his creation. As a result, natural philosophy gradually became more and more about observing that creation rather than simply listening to ancient wise men.

It took centuries for Natural Philosophy to produce what we would recognize as modern science. Even some of those most outstanding of those pioneering philosopher-scientists would get distracted by long theological and philosophical discourses (and even what we today might characterize as bizarre mysticism) over the implications of their experiments. Nevertheless, over time their academic peers recognized that one could learn much from their empirical methods even while discarding their non-empirical speculative tangents. (Issac Newton published great science but also a lot of really strange mystical musings.)

I guess I’m a little surprised that my sentence which you placed in bold would be at all surprising (let alone seem implausible.) To me this is simply the story of how natural philosophy evolved. Also, perhaps it is worth noting [Sorry for previous typo, @John_Dalton, which sounded sarcastic!] that my relevant studies in western thought and the history of science were associated with secular universities, so there is nothing uniquely “Christian” about my view on this.


Science is the ultimate meritocracy.


That vivid “The first time Dembski booted me” title from @david.heddle’s blog almost motivates me to create a cartoon-style illustration.