Does the GAE violate methodological naturalism?


I’m having some trouble fleshing out what you mean by this passage in your book:

“The claim that Adam and Eve, ancestors of us all, were de novo created is neither a scientific claim, nor is it a scientific conclusion. In this sense, it is an improper hypothesis. It is, nonetheless, a well-specified hypothesis that science can test with evidence. Our determination about the evidential status of this hypothesis is, moreover, a legitimate scientific claim.”

Swamidass, S. Joshua. The Genealogical Adam and Eve (pp. 29-30). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

I’m assuming that you mean the de novo creation of Adam and Eve violates methodological naturalism and is therefore “improper”. Is that a correct interpretation?

Then you say your hypothesis is still scientifically “legitimate”. What is the purpose of methodological naturalism if hypotheses which violate it, including yours, are still considered “legitimate”? How can we scientifically test claims that violate methodological naturalism?

1 Like

This is a great question. I appreciate you asking for clarification.

What I claim is that:

  1. “de novo AE” is not a scientific claim or conclusion.
  2. “de novo AE” is an “improper hypothesis.”
  3. Following MN, we can make a “legitimate scientific claim” about the “evidential status” of the “de novo AE” hypothesis.

So MN is followed by noting in #1 and #2 that “de novo AE” is not properly scientific. The “evidential status” is a legitimate “scientific claim #3,” because the assessment of the hypothesis follows MN, without invoking miracles to explain away difficult data.

Counterintuitively, perhaps, following MN gives theology a way to dialogue with science about the evidential status of particular Scriptural claims. This pattern extends to examples like the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection.

Yes, that is close enough for our purposes here.

No, the assessment of the hypothesis (not the hypothesis itself) is scientifically “legitimate” because no miracles are used to explain away any evidence.

We can do this by making a distinction between a hypothesis and the assessment of a hypothesis. If we keep miracles out of the evidential assessment, confined only to the hypothesis, then the assessment (even if the hypothesis itself is improper) is entirely scientific. We are also following MN by labeling a miracle hypothesis as “improper.”

Of course, if an improper hypothesis was independently warranted and better explained data than a purely scientific hypothesis, this would be good epistemic justification for it, whether or not it is “improper” by MN in “science.” We might see an example of this in scientifically-engaged arguments for fine tuning.


It is? How could one possibly test that? There can be no evidence of their existence, much less evidence that they were de novo created rather than born normally. Perhaps you merely mean that there can be no evidence against the hypothesis? But that means it can’t be tested; that’s what “test” means.


“Test,” in this case, means to determine if there is evidence one way or another. There is not. So our assessment is that the hypothesis is “consistent” with the evidence, neither ruled out or indicated by the evidence. In context this should be clear, but it is possible that “assess” might be a more helpful term.

That isn’t what “test” means, ever. Nor, by the nature of the hypothesis, could there conceivably be any evidence to look for, one way or another.


That’s a bit like saying cricket violates the rules of baseball because it allows batters to hit balls into foul territory.

You can’t violate the rules of methodological naturalism if you aren’t trying to follow them to begin with. If someone chooses to use different rules and correctly state that they are not using the scientific method then there isn’t a problem. We can disagree with their method and conclusions, but we also shouldn’t fall into the trap of saying something is false for simply being unscientific. For example, morality is not scientific and yet it is a vital part of human culture.

1 Like

True @T_aquaticus, but my claim is that I am following MN by having a careful line about what is and is not science in this discourse. The scientific assessment of the hypothesis I am claiming is fully scientific.


Shall we agree that the scientific assessment is limited to an investigation of whether genealogical descent from a particular couple could reasonably have spread to the entire world population within a few thousand years? The origin of that couple is not under investigation or capable of being investigated.


That’s what I was trying to get across. My apologies if it wasn’t clear enough.

1 Like


It is not improper for Christians to discuss Christian theology or Christian metaphysics.

Sometimes there are discussions about science.
And sometimes there are theological or religious discussions ABOUT science.

But theological or discussions ABOUT science are not necessarily scientific.

THUS: GAE is OUTSIDE of methodological naturalism.

Well, Josh, I understand what you are saying, but the GAE does not “follow” MN. Methodological naturalism says that science cannot consider supernatural causes as a hypothesis. You can’t get around this by saying your hypothesis is unscientific but you are somehow following MN after making an unscientific hypothesis. If that was a valid way of defining MN, than MN would be completely meaningless. Virtually any supernatural cause could be discussed in exactly this way, up to and including all the ideas you reject, like intelligent design and young earth creationism.

For example, I could say that the Flood was started by a supernatural act which began runaway subduction of the oceanic plates, but after that I am following MN.

Progressive creation could be said to be “following” MN because every divine intervention could be defined as unscientific but thereafter “follow” MN.

No one who actually supports MN would accept this as a valid way of defining it or a valid way of representing what it means.

You are simply not a methodological naturalist. You are a substance dualist, just like me.

1 Like

I agree I’m not following MN as your understand it, and I understand in fact your comments as a compliment and evidence of real common ground. I’m glad to hear it.

However, not to detract from this, I did in fact follow MN as understood by me and most practicing scientists I know.

Perhaps there is a gap between how we understand and apply MN and how it is understood in your circles?

That is one scientific claim. There are others. My claims also extend beyond science too

What are the other scientific claims? I have not noticed them.

For example: a recent universal ancestor would most likely be genetic ghosts that do not give all of us (or any of us!) any DNA.

There are dozens of other claims like this throughout the book.

That’s a good one. What else?

Yes, I’d agree we have common ground. Where we part ways is I say things as they are, and you are saying things for political effect, that is, to build consensus among people with whom you disagree. I don’t do that. Would I if I was in your position? Perhaps, but I would admit that’s what I was doing, and that political consensus building is a natural part of science which opens it to all sorts of human foibles. In that conception of science, it can no longer hold the kind of authority that you appear to claim that it does.

Methodological naturalism doesn’t care what you call something. If you called gravity a supernatural force science could still study it. What MN requires is testable hypotheses and empirical measurements, and this is where GAE falls short. There (currently) isn’t a way to positively detect GAE, and the best one could do is say that GAE is not ruled out by the evidence.


To echo what @T_aquaticus said, in principle it’s possible to use the scientific method to analyze certain supernatural acts without making a judgment on who or what caused it. For example, if one theorized that God supernaturally intervened to send a meteor crashing on the Earth 66 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs, we can look for empirical evidence of that. In fact, we do have evidence for something like that: the Chicxulub impact.

Now, in reality someone who believes in MN would assume that the Chicxulub crater must have been caused by a meteor from outer space which just happened to cross paths on Earth, instead of being miraculously conjured up by God. At that point, we have much less resolving power from the evidence to distinguish between the supernatural and the natural hypotheses. Still, this shows that even if the supernatural option were true, we would still be able to use science to investigate part of this hypothesis. This is also why some YEC claims can be investigated by regular science.

1 Like

It would be good to hear your articulation of what you see as our common ground.

I don’t think “political” is remotely correct. Rather, I am seeking to form consensus around new findings and around otherwise well established findings. That is what it looks like to “win” in science, to even have your opponents concede that the consensus has shifted towards you.

Every good scientists seeks to build consensus around their work, because that is how our knowledge progresses. Science is a particular way of building consensus too.

You have to show me quotes where I claimed science had authority to make sense of this. The fact that the consensus is not closed and static is why science is so effective and eventually accrues authority. When the consensus is wrong, it can be changed.