Maarten Boudry on Methodological Naturalism

I was referring to your claim about methodological naturalism. Here’s a paper by Maarten Boudry that made me realize the standard methodological naturalism is false:


And another one:

1 Like

@T.j_Runyon you are going to have to explain yourself more. @Patrick, obviously, was not applying MN correctly. So that is not a basis to criticize MN. We have extensively addressed this elsewhere. How are you interacting with my position on this?

Methodological Naturalism, So Falsely Called

The Creator-Creation Distinction

patrick seemed to be implying MN rules out miraculous intervention a priori and I think that is false and that that position is philosophically indefensible. I believe there are more reasonable formulations of MN, one of which, is laid out in these two papers by Boudry. As far as your work on MN goes i am not familiar with it but I soon will be.

I think that your are right. MN doesn’t rule out miraculous intervention a priori. I am now fully on board that MN is neutral on miraculous intervention. Thanks


Now I think we should prefer natural explanations and exhaust all natural possibilities before considering supernatural ones. Because an observation is more likely to have a natural explanation than a supernatural one. This is true even if God exists. Natural explanations have a terrific track record and have replaced supernatural ones numerous times. Supernatural explanations have a poor track record. I think science only considering natural explanations just cuts off potential paths to knowledge and that’s not a good thing. The question then becomes when are we sure we have exhausted all natural possibilities?

1 Like

So, let’s first talk about who Maarten Boudry is. He is a philosopher and a prominent atheist. Maybe even @Patrick knows him personally? (if so, invite him to come talk about this).

What he is doing here, is try to lay the groundwork so that he can proclaim that science has ruled out God.

I could not disagree more.

Science does not have capacity (even without MN) to discern supernatural questions, even if we get rid of MN (as Boudry is proposing). The reason is precisely you final point:

The question then becomes when are we sure we have exhausted all natural possibilities?

I am a practicing scientist, working and engaging with leading scientists every day. I cannot envision how we could possibly know that we have “exhausted” all natural possibilities. We could certainly exhaust our creativity. We could exhaust our knowledge. Without entering into science fiction, how could any one possibly “exhaust” natural possibilities?

Such a counter-factual requires either God-like knowledge of nature, or profound blindness to the fact we do not have God-like knowledge of nature. It is something only a philosopher could propose with a straight face. I cannot plausibly imagine constructing that type of confidence about the natural world. It is stunningly implausible hubris.

I was just at an NIH review committee. I’m imagining a fictional R01 being discussed, where Aim 1 is “rule out all natural possibilities;” Aim 2 is “consider other possibilities.” I can’t even imagine what the approach would be, and would struggle to discuss it with out breaking into laughter. There is no process I know of or can imagine for accomplishing Aim 1. It is an absurd claim, that no real scientist would ever consider putting before their peers.

@T.j_Runyon, this is not directed at you personally, and I hope you do not take this with offense. I think, however, you just got cat-fished. If you think I’m wrong, how exactly would you propose “ruling out all natural possibilities?” It sounds like a paraphrase of Sherlock Holmes more than anything I’ve seen in science.

1 Like

@T.j_Runyon, I have a question about this section of the abstract of the “How Not to Attack ID Creationism…”

According to one popular conception, MN is a self-imposed or intrinsic limitation of science, which means that science is simply not equipped to deal with claims of the supernatural (Intrinsic MN or IMN). Alternatively, we will defend MN as a provisory and empirically grounded attitude of scientists, which is justified in virtue of the consistent success of naturalistic explanations and the lack of success of supernatural explanations in the history of science (Provisory MN or PMN).

So the abstract contrasts:

“MN is a self-imposed or intrinsic limitation of science, which means that science is simply not equipped to deal with claims of the supernatural (Intrinsic MN or IMN).”


“Alternatively, we will defend MN as a provisory and empirically grounded attitude of scientists, which is justified in virtue of the consistent success of naturalistic explanations and the lack of success of supernatural explanations in the history of science (Provisory MN or PMN).”

QUESTION: How would you respond to the view that MN refers to both sides of that same coin? (Aren’t both summations valid?) After all, the scientific method doesn’t have any procedures or tools which can test for “the supernatural.” (As Francis Collins and countless others have said: “Bring me my angel detector…”) At the same time, MN evolved among Christian philosophers as its development produced impressive results where purely theological explanations had failed to be all that helpful. MN has been traditionally defined as it is because doing so works well and the fact that science is inherently limited in its domain of investigation is actually one of its greatest strengths.

I can see how the two positions differ in how well they explain how MN developed and became the “standard” in science, historically speaking. But it seems like both of the alternatives are simultaneously valid, two sides of the same coin.

I haven’t got very far reading the article yet, and I have so much reading piled up (and a book project that is woefully behind) so that I may never get the time to investigate this topic as much as I would wish. So that’s part of the selfish reason why I’m cutting corners and asking outright what you think about this.

I will admit that my grasp of MN is biased by the philosophy of science atmosphere of my generation’s graduate school “era”. I have not kept up on the MN debates—but a lot of what I have read on the various views on MN strike me as “distinctions without much of a difference.” And that is how the abstract sounded to me, in part because I wouldn’t characterize the problem as “ruling them [supernatural explanations] out by philosophical fiat.” Indeed, the choice of the word fiat sounds like a mischaracterization to me. (However, I would agree that some well-known scientists who “preach” to the public on various topics imply a fiat point of view.)

Philosophers reached certain conclusions about MN and the definition of science not by some arbitrary definition or mere bias. (I prefer “reasoned conclusion about definitions based on methodologies which worked extremely well” to “fiat”. The latter seems like a loaded word.)

Admittedly, I did not have a lot of training in Philosophy of Science courses nor as much philosophy as I might have wished. Yet, I would guess that the average person reading such an abstract might be likely to have similar questions to mine. No doubt I’m missing important considerations.

By the way, I’ve not read all that Dr. Swamidas has written about this MN issue but I really like his “Creator-Creation Distinction” way of considering the boundaries of investigation. I also like what he posted on another thread about “minds are not material”:

@Paul_Nelson is making a legitimate point. It has to do with demarcation criteria for what is “natural” which is often equated with “material”. But “Minds” are not material. So, in some discourse, it seems like “minds” are not proper causal entities. Of course, science does allow minds to be causal entities, even in evolution (see Sexual Selection), but that isn’t material. It all becomes incoherent. He is right.

Yes, I would agree that minds are not material. However, some would say that minds are just the “virtual machine” that is manifested when a material brain does what it does. (Those who have had computer theory courses beyond simple programming probably remember learning about various levels of virtual machines for the first time in some 200-level CS course. Some would even say that the mind is the software that runs on the brain’s hardware—but I’m not so sure that that analogy is all that helpful.)

Long ago I had a startling conversation with Doug Hofstadter concerning his ideas about “mind uploading”, aka WBE, Whole Brain Emulation. It seemed like bizarre science fiction from an old movie: achieving a kind of “eternal life” by porting the “virtual machine(s)” of the human brain into a computer. Because the “mind port” was from a carbon-based material brain to a silicon-based material computer, I got the impression that Hofstadter still considered his work bound to the material world and thereby valid science. But Hofstadter got a lot of pushback from colleagues (especially within his own department!) and many assumed that his unusual tangent was due to his grief over the sudden loss of his wife to a rare disease. Some colleagues accused him of a reckless trespass beyond the boundaries of the MN of science. [I lost contact with Hofstadter around the time I made the transition from science professor to humanities professor so it is possible that he has a very different outlook today. That conversation was probably around 1981 or so.]


And that is another reason why “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Today’s absence of evidence could be overcome by the discovery of an abundance of relevant evidence tomorrow. So the absence of evidence for some X today cannot be considered predictive that no relevant evidence will ever be discovered.

These topics (and the logical fallacies which often accompany them) remind me of a famous quotation which is commonly attributed to Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin but actually belongs to Nikita Khrushchev and his anti-religion campaign at the time: “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there.” Obviously, nobody familiar with the Bible or most any other theistic religion expected astronauts to observe God after reaching a sufficient distance from the earth. So the fact that the first people to visit space didn’t find any striking evidence for God there didn’t help Khrushchev’s atheism arguments as much as he assumed.


Highly relevant to this question is this beautiful parable by Dr. @sygarte .

I want to talk in parables too! How do I do that? @AndyWalsh

1 Like


I clearly agree with this position…with one qualufication: the word supernatural could refer to activities of something or some entity not divine. I do prefer the term miraculous to avoid opening a can of words.

I never take offense so no worries there. I think you got me there. Perhaps my wording is too strong. Maybe i would restate it as, "the question then becomes when should we start considering supernatural explanations?’

1 Like

I talk to Maarten occasionally on Twitter. I’ll invite him over.

1 Like

That’s easy to answer. We consider supernatural explanations when we are outside science. That is “when,” in theology.


Keep in mind I’ve been off the radar here lately so I’ve missed some discussions and have yet to catch up. So you think science, in principle, can’t investigate the supernatural?

1 Like

Honestly just been glad to see you. I hope you are feeling okay. The key things are the two threads here:

This post by our resident historian is extremely important: Methodological Naturalism, So Falsely Called - #39 by TedDavis

Get rid of MN, and we are no longer dealing with modern science. We are getting into theology at this point. No one should trust scientists with theology. :blush:

I am very happy to defend the fact than MN rules out explanations that include miraculous intervention a prioir. Far from indefensible, it is historically and philosophically and theologically grounded.

MN is, as Francis Bacon wrote, a safeguard against “heretical religion and fantastical science.” Atheists want to get rid of MN to achieve the former, and Scientific Creationists / Intelligent Design want to get rid of MN to achieve the later. Either way, it is a bad idea.

It cannot investigate the supernatural. For very grounded philosophical, scientific, and theological reasons.

Thanks, buddy. Good days and bad days. I’ll definitely start in on those two threads and try to get my thoughts organized. My mind is a little haywire right now.

1 Like

Something I think that may be hurting me in this conversation is im new to Christianity and my theology and history of theology isn’t where it needs to be. To be completely honest I’m lost and dont even know where to start. Haha

1 Like

In this case, you are just falling prey to this:

1 Like

Also, I’m planning a trip to Cahokia in the near future. Hopefully you’ll be around during that time and we can meet up and have some of these discussions in person @swamidass

1 Like