Maarten Boudry on Methodological Naturalism


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?’

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

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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?

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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

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.

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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

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

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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

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George - I think the can will spill open anyway. In another context altogether, Josh quoted this text of Jesus:

Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!

…suggesting that God is not the only source of “miracles,” either.

However, either word probably does well for Allen’s limitation, except for that weasel word “natural,” which lacks a thorough definition as much as “supernatural” or “miraculous” do.

Clearly, by definition methodological naturalism excludes the supernatural, but (as C S Lewis said) if ghosts exist, they presumably have a nature, but an immaterial one. Angels too are created, and so have a created nature, but they are immaterial. So does science include them in its study as “natural” parts of creation, or exclude them from study as “supernatural” because, presumably, considered spooky?

If it excludes them, presumably one needs some definition of what’s unnatural about them (after all they’re not God), which is difficult without studying them: supposing they’re the same kind of “immaterial” as gravity, or dark energy?

Another thought arising from that last comment (this is all very important as I’m thinking of starting the “British Journal of Angelology” if they come within science.)

The problem with dark matter and energy is that they don’t usually interact with normal matter (immaterial?), so the experiments are all set up underground in the hope of capturing that elusive interaction that demonstrates their existence.

An invisible angel comes down and stirs the waters at the pool in Jerusalem (according to local expectation), a material disturbance for which no other cause can be found. So

  • Does the physical effect indicate that angels are, after all, material and natural, and so a legitimate cause within science like dark matter? Or
  • Does the angel get bracketed with God rather than dark matter and excluded from science, despite his investigable interaction with the natural world? Or
  • Do we say that science can’t say why the water moved without a known physical cause (but that it can say why our underground detector flipped without a known material cause)? Or
  • Do we say that the angel bit is a textual corruption in John anyway, so we can ignore the whole question?

This matters because I’ve got this guy Jacob in the surgery with a dislocated hip he says was caused in a fight with the angel of God.

NOTE: Josh has been shuffling threads again, so these two posts have got divorced from the context of George’s comment!

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I never really thought about the need for such a “qualification” because the word “supernatural” has never been restricted to the divine. So, once again, considering this as a linguist, the idea that there is a need for such a qualification of the definition of the word “supernatural” surprises me.

No one can, of course. “Exhausting all natural possibilities” entails searching an infinitely large space (viz., exhaust n possible natural causes, and n + 1 remain to be tried). The search represents a logical impossibility, which is the best kind of impossibility to have.

But that should tell you that we don’t infer intelligent causation by performing logical impossibilities. Humans do reliably infer design, every day, and they do so without exhausting the space of possible natural causes. Scenario: you return to your car after watching a movie at a theatre, to find a piece of paper tucked under the windshield wiper. On it is written, “Bumped your car, very sorry, here’s my phone number [# here], call me re insurance, etc. My apologies, John Doe.”

Now it is possible – there is a non-zero probability – that unknown natural processes caused the slip of paper to carry the text and become lodged under the wiper. In conjunction with the dent in the rear panel of your car.

Yet you don’t start searching the space of possible natural causes, to eliminate all of them, before calling the phone number. No one does. It would be madness even to try.

Moral: reasonable inferences to intelligent causation follow a different logic tree than “exhaust all possible natural causes first.” I leave it as an exercise to the reader to examine their own paths of reasoning, to see that this is indeed the case.

Second point: the comments thus far in this thread presuppose that the contrast class to “natural” is “supernatural” or “miraculous.” That is an unsound analytical cut.

Here’s why. Every comment in this thread is a natural pattern: you write the comments, we all read them, they’re stored as 1s and 0s in an electronic medium, etc. Nothing miraculous or supernatural about it.

Yet no comment in this thread can be explained by any combination of “natural” causes, where “natural” means reducible to strictly physical or material events or processes, and agency or intelligence has been eliminated.

If such a reduction is possible, please provide it.

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Sure, but the last I checked, we are not inferring Divine Action here. This is merely a “natural” (as in Creation) effect, not the Creator. So I’m not sure the point.

I’d probably focus on the known natural process, that of human action. Seems to be a human who did this, and that is part of the created order.

What makes you say that agency and intelligence is not part of natural processes? Of course it is! I’m just saying that the Creator is not the subject of scientific study.

Paul, given your usual interlocures, you are rightly objecting to the material-immaterial dividing line. That is a totally incoherent way to make sense of this. You’ve already convinced me about this. Human minds are part of the “natural” process that MN allows, and this does not imply that minds are reducible to material. Rather it just acknowledges there is a distinction between the minds of Creatures and the mind of the Creator.

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Well in your car example we have everyday experiences of these things. So I agree with you that would be madness. But many of the things science investigates are outside our everyday experience, counterintuitive or events that happened only once or a handful of times.

“And thus much concerning God, to discourse of whom from the appearance of things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy.”

Isaac Newton, General Scholium to the Principia.

If MN allows inferences to human intelligence, then it allows inferences to intelligence generically (e.g., inferences to extraterrestrial intelligence). However, there is no principled or non-question-begging way to know, before investigation, how to keep “divine” intelligence outside the circle of reasonable inferences, while allowing human or extraterrestrial intelligence in.

Intelligence as a distinct mode of causation is not reducible to the physical or material. If it is, then it disappears as a real cause, and “intelligence” or “mind” is simply a placeholder for a fully complete physical explanation (which is actually what Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, Alex Rosenberg, and other philosophically consistent materialists believe). Again: allow intelligence or mind as an irreducible color or flavor of reality, and one cannot without begging the question exclude “divine” intelligence.

Note to TJ added in edit: “everyday experience” still possesses an underlying logic. An intelligent being who had never seen a handwritten note, an automobile, insurance, cell phones, and all the rest, would need to construct a logic tree to arrive at “call the number” versus “keep searching for a physical or material cause, not a mind.” Don’t take “everyday experience” as something simple or obvious. As AI researchers have painstakingly learned over the past several decades, “experience” is incredibly complex.

Because of travel commitments, I must leave this thread until Tuesday June 12. Best to all! Thanks again to Josh for making this forum possible.


Safe travels, Paul!

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Thanks, TJ! Please see my quick note to you, added in edit, in my last comment.

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In @pnelson’s windscreen note example (which I accept is not the best one might find), the significant point is that the principle sign of “intelligent agency” (like, a person) is not that a paper is under the windscreen with squiggles on it like examples we’ve seen before, but that we can discern final causation through the whole phenomenon - note and squiggles in the context, and most of all the message that tells us the guy’s purpose, or final cause, in putting it there.

Paul is right about the immaterial nature of that purpose, as in the content of the posts on the thread he mentions. For the most part science cannot deal in final causes, and they, like formal causes, were excluded from it at Bacon’s time as being useless for doing science, because they are subjective.

They’ve crept back into biology in the shape of “biological functions”, and even there prove their “tricksyness” by often fooling us: the “sexually preferred” antlers of the giant elk turn out to be a result of a structural law in deer (Gould); the giraffe turns out not to use its long neck to reach the higher branches at all.

To put that in Paul’s context, there is nothing in the material or efficient causes leading to the note on the windscreen, or this post, that entails they should have that particular purpose: the note could be a hoax, or the posts put here for some cynical reason other than the conversation we assume. This post might contain a clever code to alert a lurker to plant a bomb.

In other words, even in human affairs final causation is to a degree intuited, and not objectively reproducible. Yet we can’t do without it, and we do a pretty good job of discerning it as purpose, even when we don’t understand that purpose. Indeed, usually in our consideration it completely replaces the scientific business of efficient causation - Paul is scarcely interested whether his note is on notepaper or a bus ticket, in pencil or fountain pen. And none of us here, I’ll wager, gives a thought to whether each other is typing on a tablet or PC, or dictating into voice recognition software. I go to get a coffee without even thinking what muscles to use. The mind connects directly with final purpose and takes the rest for granted.

Not so for God? Well, at least equally risky, which is why finality of all kinds is usually outside science. But we routinely discern final causation in biological function, and whilst giant elk may fool us, we know eyes are for seeing, fins for swimming and feedback loops for homeostasis. Mostly, we’re right.

We discern that function by the same intuition which is the only tool we have for discerning final causation in human activity, and the question is not so much whether it belongs in science or not by being “natural”: the same final cause could be the result of aliens, angels, God or my own mind playing tricks on me. No, the question is whether our direct mind-finality connection is correct (as with windscreen notes and forum posts), or whether our faculty has been fooled by purely efficient causes (chance and necessity) giving the illusion of finality.

In that case, “the eye is for seeing” is merely my folk-psychological way of saying, “following this sequence of causes, the eye turns out to see.” “Normal serum potassium” really means “within the range that a majority of similar organisms have except when they don’t” and so on. It gets complicated without finality!

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