Hash Out A New View of Methodological Naturalism?

So you accept that “methodological naturalism” doesn’t after all have the advantages over “methodological regularism” that you implied?

I have actually explained before why creator-creation doesn’t work. But let’s recap - presumably you are using your “creator-creation” distinction to form a definition for “nature.” Thus we arrive at “nature = creation,” naturalism as “the position that creation is independent of divine influence” and MN as “the methodology that assumes that creation is independent of divine influence.”

Methodologically, then, nothing changes. But you’ve smuggled in the assumption that nature, in fact, is independent of divine influence - which is deism or, at least, semideism. The metaphysics is still loaded in a particular direction.

Let’s flesh out the problems with the creator-creation distinction, with passing reference to science. Scripture says that angels are a major part of creation, as are powers and principalities, heaven, visions, the resurrected human body of Christ, a miraculously healed cancer and non-material things like mathematics, ethics, universals and so on. So does that make all these appropriate for science to study? Or are you going to redefine nature as “the particular bit of creation scientists choose to study”, and if so, your simple creation-creator divide fails.

Then again, suppose that nature is actually what God does, what we call “laws” being “general providence,” divine habits, and contingencies being “special providence,” divine choices. In that case, as soon as you study anything that actually happens in the world, you’d be studying the actions of the Creator but calling them the actions of the Creation - with exactly the same deistic metaphysical assumptions.

The same is true to a lesser, but unmeasurable, extent if God sometimes acts directly in nature - which many Scriptures directly affirm, by the way. If the providential provision of some notable answer to prayer is worthy of special thanksgiving, then you can’t say it’s due to “creation” as opposed to “creator” (or vice versa), any more than can call a book “natural” because you can’t find the author in it.

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You do not seem to understand the proposal. I did not smuggle said proposal in.

Conceptually MN has similar disadvantages as MR. however MN has the advantage of being the current rules with a tradition stretching back 400 years. The problems, also, are rectified by recovering its original name. Regularism is wholly deficient in light of this.

Ah - you mean “general providence”? That was the terminology at the dawn of modern science.

…And I did what you asked and said why creator-creation is inadequate, but you’ve not answered any of the objections.

Can you enumerate concisely the objections as saliently as possible?

  1. Creation is much wider than what is conventionally studied as “nature.” [creation ≠ and > nature].
  2. Much of what is currently studied as “nature” may in fact be the activity of God within creation. [nature = creation + creator].
  3. Ergo, to define “creation” as that which is studied by science, and “creator” as that which may not be so studied, is question-begging, and potentially false.

Alright @jongarvey. I think I understand your objections.

Let me think about seeing how to answer it. Let me ask you to switch sides of the chess board for a moment, and try to come up with your best solutions to the problems/objections your propose. Let us see together if we can resolve these objections.

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First, what goal are we trying to achieve? Theologically, the distinction between Creator and creation is unproblematic (unless one is trying to shoehorn in creaturely co-creation, but fortunately we’re not BioLogos!).

The problem seems to me that of trying to map that distinction to a conventional understanding of methodological naturalism, when the definition of both “nature” and “naturalism” seems more informal than robust in current usage.

I’ve no clear idea of what “nature” is - and even less idea when, in MN, we’re committed to acting as if nature were not created (ie, as if metaphysical naturalism were true).


Clarity of though. It seems to me this is the sort of question you and I should be able to come to agreement on. We are closely aligned enough on so many things that our friction here makes me wonder what precisely is driving it. I expect the outcome will either be:

  1. I understand the reason why this distinction is not the solution I think it is.
  2. You understand why it is the solution that I think it s.

In this specific case, clarity on this and even consensus between you and I would have real value to me.

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Let me put it another way, then:

  • Let’s agree we want the content of our science to be essentially what it is now, both to fit into the world, and because it’s a useful way to do science.
  • But we’re not actually metaphysical naturalists, so we want an understanding of “methodological naturalism” (we’re stuck with the actual name, it seems) that doesn’t trap us into thinking like metaphysical naturalists.
  • So clearly we want, within our own scientific work, a metaphysical working redefinition of “naturalism” and/or “nature” that gives our theology room to breathe: it won’t change our science, but may free up our personal conceptual framework.
  • close bullet points, begin discussion.

So, what can we define as that which science does, or ought to, study? Certainly I agree it’s something to do with the created order rather than God. But that’s a toughie, because to many there are arbitrary boundaries to science based on metaphysical prejudice (eg, “science doesn’t study telepathy because that’s nonsense” - defining “nonsense” in an arbitrary way that might exclude quite “normal” parts of creation that don’t fit the materialistic paradigm. If telepathy were caused by quantum phenomena, it would fit within science easily).

But there are more potentially legitimate boundaries such as “science doesn’t study angels, even if they exist.” Why not? Because they’re immaterial, spiritual beings. OK - so maybe we’re restricted to material entities. But what about the human mind? Is that immaterial too? What counts as “material”? As you see, I’m already having demarcation problems deciding what parts of “nature” come under my “naturalism.” I’m not surprised, though, because the philosophers of science don’t seem to be able to draw the boundaries of “nature” on rational grounds.

Hmm - where next? What about those famous “material efficient causes”? If I can stick a material efficient cause and an effect together, I’ve got some science. I note and record phenomena that are interesting, and that’s the raw material of science, but not actual science until I connect cause and effect. One can’t say a new phenomenon is “nature” until it fits into a series of causes and effects.

Of course, the more repeatable my cause/effect pattern, the better the science. One light in the sky may be an angel or a UFO - an annual shower of them puts them into our working definition of “nature.” I include in this process the imaginative work of hypotheses and theories, of course.

On this basis I don’t have to say anything about the ultimate causal connection: it doesn’t matter if Hume may be right that we can’t deduce cause from correlation, or that occasionalist theology says God is the only actual cause in the world. If an invisible angel stirs the pool once a year and the first into the water is cured, we can test the stirring and the cures, and refuse to be drawn in print on the angel. We have patterns to play with, so we have science at whatever level we can trace those cause-effect patterns.

So maybe our “nature” working definition will be “events linked by known material efficient cause and effect.”

Pause for breath.

I’ll disagree with that one.

Science doesn’t study angels, because it has not found a way of getting reliable evidence of angels. Whether or not they are immaterial is beside the point.


Would you expect such evidence to take the form of material evidence for immaterial agents, of immaterial evidence for immaterial agents? Both sound scientifically problematic to me.

My position would be that one might deal with material effects produced by angels, but would have no way of making the angels themselves tractable to (material) instruments or senses.


Unless angels are material…

This seems to miss the point.

Descartes criticized Newton for depending on occult forces. Were those occult forces material or immaterial? The important point was that Newton was able to measure them, to put them into his equations and use them to make predictions. Whether they were material or immaterial was beside the point.

Einstein’s GR does not use gravitation as forces. Does that mean that Descartes was right? Yet we still admire Newton, and engineers still measure Newton’s forces and enter them into equations to make predictions.

If somebody can come up with a way of quantifying angels, and entering those quantities into equations to make useful predictions, we would have a science of angels. It isn’t the material vs. immaterial that matters.


@swamidass and @jongarvey,

It isnt clear to me (yet) why we cant focus our attention on the side of nature that is lawful, repeatable, dare i even say non-magical.

Chemistry and Alchemy used to be synonyms. And then as the methods became more distinct the tradition we know rather well became Chemistry, and the discipline that embraced God, Angels and ALL creation became Alchemy.

So basically science would be restricted to the set of things that can be “quantified” and amenable to “predictions”? Wouldn’t such items be a small subset of nature?
Wonder what this does to psychiatry or Economics as “scientific” disciplines.

Reading through this discussion, I actually agree with @jongarvey’s view that MR/MN (as defined) is closer to what Christian scientists should believe. It is wrong for a scientist to assume that “creation is independent of divine influence” - these terms are not even well-defined. What is “divine influence”? What form it would take, and how? We don’t know exactly how God acts in nature or intervenes into it. Rather, a scientist simply studies anything in nature or creation that is (relatively) tightly defined and conforms to empirically verifiable regularities. It is conceivable that scientists could study minds or the brain if those are approximated as blackboxes with regular inputs and outputs. The same goes for studying the actions of angels, or even God’s actions.

This is also why I have increasingly come to believe that the usual distinction of God acting “directly” vs. “indirectly” is not very well-defined either. It is more useful to think of God acting in a scientifically analyzable way or not. If it is the former, then science could analyze it, although the inference that it is actually God’s actions could never be made based on science, for God’s will and intention are not reducible to a series of scientific regularities.

I also agree that the identification of nature = creation is unwarranted. I don’t think the expression that “science studies nature” should not be taken too far. Arguably, science, or at least natural science, doesn’t even claim to study all of nature - surely a large part of economics is part of the natural or material world; yet it is debatable whether economics is an empirical science. Rather, science is simply studying a subset of nature, which is in turn a subset of creation. (It is not clear to me how you would define “nature” - this seems to be more of a historical term.) Clearly God has created spirits, angels, human souls, consciousness and other things which are not reducible to scientific regularities.


I actually think Joshua would agree that is a reasonable limitation - once one realises science is not “The Truth” but a specific way of answering a specific set of questions nature raises, most of the problems go away.

As for psychiatry and economics, what are they but ways of organising soft subjects into some kind of regularity. Bob thinks he’s the Emperor of China, and Sheila hears voices - psychiatry is able to discern the patterns that make “paranoid schizophrenia” a useful label for helping them.


Thanks, Daniel - that is entirely my point.


Wouldn’t this be true only if the part that science cannot study studies does not effect the part that science studies… if there is a lot of interference, then scientific explanations of phenomenon would be blurred versions of what is actually going on… And the accuracy of predictions in many cases would be more due to coincidences/correction factors added to give correct results even though the explanation is not “True”?

I think this is why many scientists who are theists seem to prefer a worldview that leans towards deism.

I’m sure you’re right there.

If we didn’t revere science so much, it would be easy to live with the limitations the unpredictable puts upon it… and in this discussion, of course, that includes what God may do.

In medicine we have to live with that fuzziness all the time, because we can’t deny that our results are affected by people, who are not only all different, but who forget to take the treatment we’re evaluating (and lie about it), and so on.

But as I’ve argued repeatedly on these threads, science at all levels already has that category of fuzziness, and it’s called “randomness.” Whether that arises from the inability to control experimental conditions, human error, unobservable events approximated to statistical patterns, or divine action, it still limits the exactness of even the exact sciences.

The universe is set up so that we can know some stuff, but not most - and that ought to be OK.