Dump the Metaphysics — How About Methodological Regularism?



Thanks for posting this, @Patrick
Your thoughts, as a fair-minded “referee?”

I tend to like Sean Carroll’s view expressed in his recent book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself :

Science should be interested in determining the truth, whatever that truth may be – natural, supernatural, or otherwise. The stance known as methodological naturalism, while deployed with the best of intentions by supporters of science, amounts to assuming part of the answer ahead of time. If finding truth is our goal, that is just about the biggest mistake we can make.


The pseudo-scientific doctrine of methodological naturalism …

Eight words in and it’s already wrong. If you need to redefine science to for your pet theory to work, then it’s not science. Much of what we now consider to be scientific fact was once believed to be supernatural. We don’t assume that the seemingly supernatural doesn’t not exist, but we do require material evidence for consideration.


So am I too drunk on Tequila, or are you willing to sound just the tiniest bit like those who think differently than others are not complete IDiots, just that they don’t belong in polite conversation in public education discussions? Or, some other alternative?

Did you bring enough for everyone??? :smile:


Still trying like mad to make myself believe I’m just the result of cosmic accidents… So, no; there’s definitely not enough, but I’m willing to share what I have! Cheers!

1 Like

There’s not enough tequila in Mexico to get past that one :slight_smile:


Exactly, MN is standard scientific practice, and he strawman it badly. I’ve made this case a many many times though. Poor guy probably just needs to read this (and links therein):

1 Like

Hi Dan,
What would you qualify as “material” evidence for the supernatural. How do you qualify “material”.

Do you mean measurable? and repeatable?

Haven’t read the quote in context, but it seems here that Carroll is giving vibes of scientism. I have certainly read him arguing that “God as a hypothesis” doesn’t explain anything better than science, so maybe he is New Atheist-lite. I do think it is unfair that an atheist can hint at scientism and still be respected, but if a theistic scientist hints that science can detect God in some way, the response will be quite negative. (Not that I, as a theist, believe that science can actually detect God.)

1 Like

I am not sure science has been philosophically or theologically neutral at any point in history.
In Newton’s times , theism was in the vogue and it left its impact on science…
Later on with Darwin and co, there a shift to materialism.
I think science tends to reflect the philosophy of whichever group holds cultural power at a particular point of time… i.e it was theistic when culture was dominated by theism and it became materialistic as culture changed.
In post modern times, Science might be come relative in its nature avoiding ultimate Truth claims.

I don’t see any point in history where science was philosophically or theologically neutral. Perhaps @Eddie can give his inputs.


How so? He seems to be saying that God shouldn’t necessarily be excluded from the equation. Whatever that is, how is it scientism?

I have certainly read him arguing that “God as a hypothesis” doesn’t explain anything better than science, so maybe he is New Atheist-lite.

Well, if you thought it did, you probably wouldn’t be an atheist of any stripe.

If you think that God could be part of the “equation” (as in scientifically), then that is a violation of MN, which Carroll argues is wrong anyway. If God could be proven by science, then he could also be disproved. Caroll also exhibits scientism in his statement that science should be interested in determining any truth. Maybe I’m reading too much into this. But this seems to imply that science can investigate any sort of claim, including those normally in the domain of other subjects like philosophy, theology, or history. This does not appreciate the limits of science as a tool. Of course, I’m not arguing that the truths discovered empirical science can assist and illuminate philosophical thought, for example. But the questions of philosophy are different from science.

My issue is not with him being an atheist; it’s that he seems to mostly regard God as a possible scientific explanation like any other. When God doesn’t satisfy scientific criteria, then that undermines his existence or necessity. But scientific theists like me don’t even begin to think of God as a scientific hypothesis, any more than we treat our friends and family as scientific hypotheses.

Let me not overstate my criticism of Carroll, though. Even though he has associated with some strident atheists, he is more philosophically informed than most scientists and I have read several articles of his which are very insightful and fair, even if ultimately they argue against the rationality of belief in God.


Is that last sentence necessarily true? It seems that there are a lot of things that we could prove simply by observing them, but which we could not conclusively rule out as a possibility. Anyway, I think of scientism as the idea that only science can give insight into truth. I disagree with that notion, but I don’t think there is anything that science should necessarily be excluded from. That’s not to say it can necessarily be applied to anything and everything either. It’s one of a variety of tools at our disposal which can be used as is fitting. He seems only to be saying to me that science should not absolutely exclude any possibilities during its explorations, which I would agree with. The way I see it God is not assumed under MN because there has never been any empirical reason to do so. To take for granted that that will always be the case seems unwise to me, not that I expect that the current situation will ever change.

But we don’t call on our family and friends as the explanation for various sundry things. If you seek to do so with God–and many people do, often–then it seems to me that God is a hypothesis. If you don’t, fine, but I would guess that few people have a belief in God that is so abstract as that. I think that’s what he’s pointing out under your description, and noting that God does no better than science at explaining anything. I don’t think it does either–really how could I given that I don’t think God exists–and I don’t consider myself to be a “New Atheist”.

1 Like

To me, the discussion of naturalism or methodological naturalism never really makes sense.

People talk as if reality is divided into two components – the natural and the supernatural – and seem to take MN to imply that we can only talk about the natural.

I do not see such a division into natural and supernatural. As I see it, science studies what it can study. And when it understands a phenomenon well enough, it describes that phenomenon as natural.

I prefer the metaphor of painting. It is as if science is painting the world with natural paint. And the supernaturalists are being painted into a corner. As science progresses, the supernaturalist corner keeps getting smaller and smaller.

If we could ever find a way of doing an empirical study of God, then we we say that God is part of nature. So the supernatural is really defined by ignorance.


@dga471 Sean Carroll calls himself a Poetic Naturalist.


I like how you started but not how you ended. I don’t see supernatural as being about ignorance but rather as being about means of explanation which are unacceptable to the relevant scientific community when used as part of scientific explanations.

Who determines acceptable scientific explanations? Scientists! Why should anyone accept their standards? Because they work in meeting the goals which science has set itself: prediction, control, explanation of the common world we experience.

Sean was right to reject ‘methodological naturalism’ if the term is meant as some standard imposed externally on science by eg philosophers. The term should instead be taken as a short way to refer to what scientists consider to be acceptable in their work.

Calling science a ‘search for truth’ is also a bad idea because it introduces the philosophical baggage associated with the nature of truth and indirectly the philosophical issue of scientific realism.

Rather than externally setting standards on what science is, it is better to aim for a common understanding of the goals of science and then rely on pragmatic grounds for accepting the outputs of science as based on the best methods and assumptions or meeting those goals.

I agree the question of the existence of God is outside the purview of science. Science can only determine whether some concept of God is an acceptable part of scientific explanation, prediction, and control.


I usually look at it as a metaphor of tinted glasses… suppose a group of people look at the world with purple tinted glasses. After a few years of doing this, some of the group forget they have got their glasses on and actually think the world is purple… afterall everything looks purple!
The rest remind that they are only capable of seeing purple…and so Color is outside the scope of their observation…
Edit: The funny part is… no one is sure why everyone is wearing purple tinted glasses…

If God and his actions can be reducible to a set of rigid, rigorous and tightly defined rules, then yes, God could be subjected to scientific experimentation, such as tests of the efficacy of intercessory prayer which have happened already. So certain “versions of God” could be subjected under MN. The problem is that these “versions of God” are very far from what religion (especially Christianity) has traditionally believed over the ages, to the point that it is questionable what significance there is in proving or disproving them. Promoting such tests only furthers ignorance into what religion is trying to say. On the other hand, if you hold to an orthodox, complete picture of God then there is no conceivable way science could ever test that, which is why your science will practically hold on to MN.

There are different levels of explanation and different kinds of hypotheses. Yes, believers do effectively subject God to tests in their daily spiritual lives, just as we occasionally test our family members for their reaction on something, their loyalty or helpfulness. But when you use the word hypothesis, the connotation I get is a scientific hypothesis, with tightly defined technical terms, circumstances and criteria for evaluation. Something as complex as a person cannot satisfy that, much less a God who is not just a person, but supposedly responsible for creating the universe and making scientific thinking possible in the first place. It does not make sense to think of such a God as a scientific hypothesis.

Of course, if by “hypothesis” you mean an explanation that can include a philosophical concept of any kind then yes, God could be a hypothesis. There are philosophical arguments for the existence of God, or the nature of God. But that’s not how I’ve read Carroll in his other works so far.