Methodological Naturalism: Hammer or Nail?

I’m using @Ashwin_s’s statement below as a starting point for discussion:

I want to try out an analogy here and see if there’s anything to it or if it’s helpful at all.

I’m going to borrow Maslow’s Law of the Instrument, which is a form of cognitive bias summarized as:

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

OK, so let’s try this out with materialism/naturalism and science, each could be the hammer or the nail.

Scenario 1
hammer = materialism
nail = science

If the only tool you have is materialism, you tend to treat everything with science.

Scenario 2
hammer = science
nail = materialism

If the only tool you have is science, you tend to treat everything as materialist.


To me much of the complaints about methodological naturalism from ID/YEC/etc. sound a lot like Scenario 1. It goes something like:

When we apply materialism to everything, we see everything through the lens of science. To remove the bias we need to remove materialism as the only philosophical “tool” with which to do science make it more flexible.

If we look at Scenario 2 though, it goes something more like:

When science is the only way to acquire knowledge, you see everything as materialistic/naturalistic. To remove the bias that may form we may need to add other “tools” to the toolbox.

My overall point is this, as a Christian scientist, the problem is not that science has a naturalistic methodology, it’s when people think science is the only tool available.

No scientist is limited to only considering naturalistic causes, but science only considers naturalistic causes.

So @Ashwin_s, I don’t think “the scientific method incorporates a materialistic bias”, I think materialism incorporates a scientific bias.


I would argue that even intelligent design supporters and creationists share this bias. When they wanted to legitimize creationism they tried to make it look like science, and they are still pursuing this line of argument. The same for intelligent design. You often hear ID/creationists trying to describe evolution as another religion, but you never hear scientists trying to describe creationism as just another science. That says a lot.


I think part of the dispute is over this claim:

I’m not sure this is correct. We asked for references.

I don’t think that’s correct.

My way of putting would be: science only considers causes that it can test.

Perhaps that amounts to the same thing. But I think it moves the emphasis toward testability rather than naturalness.


I agree, I don’t find “natural” or “naturalistic” to be very well-defined but they are often used in this context (methodological naturalism) so I went with it. Thanks for the input.


That’s the way I put it as well. If God were interacting with the universe in a way that we could measure and test then the supernatural (i.e. immaterial) could be a part of science. The scientific method is much more about making rules for what can be included rather than making rules for what has to be excluded. It is based on merit instead of ideology.

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That distinction strikes me as the kind of stuff which gets discussed in a Philosophy of Science class. What is the exact “boundary” of science in a universally agreed upon semantic sense?

I have a question about this. I’m not a physicist but am I correct in assuming that at this point in history the existence of dark matter as possibly 85% of the universe (and as a cause of various phenomena) can’t be tested because it doesn’t interact with electromagnetic radiation and therefore is difficult to observe? Yet that doesn’t stop scientists from discussing the possibilities in peer-reviewed publications. Isn’t there are “frontier” around “testable science” where one must speculate and think about possible future types of tests even if they aren’t all that fruitful now? Isn’t that science as well, even when it doesn’t yet involve testable causes?

I’m not disagreeing with anyone. I’m just unclear on this.

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Dark matter does interact with the universe through gravity, so it can be detected by methods such as gravitational lensing.

To put it another way, the amount of gravity we observe does not correspond with the amount of light emitting matter that we see. There are many explanations for this inconsistency that run the gamut from miscalculating the amount of normal matter to exotic dark matter to the theories of gravity being wrong. Many scientists think exotic dark matter is the best explanation, but it is possible that the consensus may shift over time.


I don’t think there is necessarily a clear division. In high energy physics, some particles might require a particle collider so large it is impractical to build. A testable question that never gets tested is still scientific, I think.

String theory has been criticized for posing hypotheses that have no known means of being tested. Some of that must be pushing past science and into pure speculation, but we don’t know which ones. There may be questions that are forever beyond our reach.

On the other hand, there are other examples where the mathematical theory was establish before there was any known application. The theory existed before anyone in science knew there was a question!

Science (mostly cosmology) does test this.

Yes, it is possible that a future physics will say that there is no dark matter. But that would require an alternative explanation for the observed gravitational phenomena.

To be clear, nobody has found any actual matter that happens to be dark. Rather, “dark matter” is a theoretical entity in the current explanation of certain gravitational phenomena. And it is those observed phenomena that are tested.

I take some exception to what may be just a picky semantic point: that implies at least indirectly that no ideology has merit. Perhaps instead, ‘scientific merit’?

It’s better to define as below imo-
Hammer = Naturalism or materialism.
Nail= explanation of reality.

And the statement would be as below

If the the only tool you have is materialism, you then to explain all reality through materialism.

The problem is that no other tool I acceptable to science and hence all scientific output has a materialistic bias.

Actually, natural/naturalistic used to be well defined in terms of the creation and the creator. How as methodical naturalism took the scientific bias towards materialism to its natural conclusion and supported a materialistic worldview…
The word nature lost its original meaning. It’s a proof of the bias.

That would be fine. What I was trying to communicate is that science takes a more pragmatic approach rather than ruling out certain proposals ahead of time.

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