Methodological Naturalism, So Falsely Called

Is that a joke? I’m a natural scientist that is not an idealogical naturalist. So is Francis Collins, Praveen Sethupathy, and so on. Of course that is the case.

Case in point.

Hey, @swamidass, did you leave out the “content” ? You state that the reason we exclude God from science is “for Christian theological reason…”. < Huh?

There must have been another thought you were going to add to this, yes?

Maybe something like: “because we cannot control for the Variable of God’s activity”… and so it is beyond the method of Science?

I look forward to when you finish the thought …

1 Like

I gave a complete thought, but what you wrote is good too.

What was the complete thought? You said, we remove God from science … because “we wanna”?

1 Like

Thanks for joining us @Paul_Nelson. What I am saying is consistent with that critique. You were a big part of changing my view on MN.

That is all because MN is not a sensible concept in naturalism or atheism. Most of the problems arise from not being able to “demarcate” what is and isn’t “natural.”

However, it does make sense when grounded in the distinction between Creator and creation. Bacon relies on this distinction heavily in his own work. Of course many Christians (like those in ID) take a different view, I take Bacon’s view, for theological reasons.

No. Rather, this arises from a particular view of God. We realize that God’s ways our not ours, and we cannot really understand much of Him without revelation. Moreover, creation is worth studying in its own right. We do science to understand creation on its own terms, not to work out the movements of God. Instead, we trust God will reveal those movements in His own way. Moreover, we recognize that doing science to understand God’s movements is not only presumptuous, but leaves likely to fall into “idolatry”.

The culmination of his book, describing his manifesto on the Scientific Method, Bacon gets to his final idol to avoid, one of the Idols of the Theater, the Idol of Superstition:

this unwholsome mixture of things human and divine there arises not only a fantastic [science] but also an heretical religion

This last idol is really the culmination of the whole book.

Bacon said that, in his time, the last type, the superstitious, was most common, and did the most harm.[8]

Superstition was the subject of one of Bacon’s well-known Essays, and as Howard B White points out, Bacon made it clear that he considered Catholicism, for example, to be a form of Christian superstition, and that he felt atheism to be superior to superstition. But “while the classics also regarded superstition as at variance with philosophy” they did not “regard it as necessary or desirable to wage an onslaught against existing superstition”.[9]

Avoiding Superstition?

So I would prefer to call MN a “a rule in science of avoiding superstition”. Pressed to define it, I’d say the demarcation criteria is that we do not include God-like entities in scientific theories. Here, I meaning all-powerful God in a Jewish/Christian/Muslim sense. The more powerful the god being considered, the less legitimacy it has in scientific work, because the more ability that concept has for becoming an idol that prevents us from understanding creation in its own terms. The demarcation criteria is “Creation not Creator”.

This is not to deny God’s existence or action. Bacon was a Christian that had no problem with miracles. Rather, this was a rule made in deference to God, and in recognition of our fallenness. It’s intention to so protect science form becoming a fantasy, and to protect religion from becoming heretical.

In my view, this is among the central innovations of the scientific era. Bacon was correct.

Loosing It’s True Name

@Paul_Nelson is correct that MN is widely panned now, but that is because we forgot the starting point that gave rise to it. MN is not well grounded in a secular context, and only makes sense from something like Christian theology. If we saw it from that point, as does (for example) Jack Collins, Hans Halvorson, and Andrew Torrance, it is no longer a problem. It becomes a coherent.

The reason why MN is disputed is because we lost its true name, which comes from theology, not secularism.

1 Like

This is a great example of why it is important to recognize the difference between methodological and philosophical naturalism.

Methodological naturalism should acknowledge that there is a limit to what can and cannot be studied by the tools we have available and should acknowledge that it is unqualified to answer questions pertaining to the latter.

In both of these quotes, the respective authors are not making a distinction between “MN” and “PN” and are referring to the inability of “MN” to answer questions beyond its scope.

I believe when applied properly (and recognize that this is frequently not the case), MN is simply the best approach to answering physical questions and by no means any sort of attempt to keep the “bad guys” out.

1 Like

I very much like that summation.

1 Like

Well, to clarify that, I’ve spent a lot of time making sure I was not representing the situation. Though, I am not a historian, and the situation is complex, I think there is validity to my position. Hopefully historians, like @TedDavis and Clinton Ohlers will be able to join in.

@Paul_Nelson, you are 100% correct that there is something fishy about MN in science today. IMHO, however, that is not a reason to get rid of it. Rather, it is a reason to understand what is fishy about it, and perhaps rectify it. Like I’ve said, I think that leaves us recognizing that MN is the “term of art” in science, that was formed in an effort secularize science, but its referent remains to a theological concept: the Creator-Creation distinction.

To add to this, the notion of science as being defined as the search for all “truth” is very dangerous slippery slope. There is no way to demonstrate human rights from science, and I think that they are “true” and important. If we start making science the arbitrator of all truth (even if we get rid of MN), we grant it far too much authority.

This the the danger that Gould was attempting to protect against with the Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). His instinct was right, but NOMA is a failed demarcation criteria. As I gather, modern critique of MN does not consider Creation vs. Creator as a demarcation criteria, even though this is the origin of MN, and does not suffer from the problems of other criteria.

So now that I’ve explained why I think it is incorrectly named, I can answer this question:

That change is probably worth expanding on. Why then continue to use a term you acknowledge as being ‘incorrectly named’ instead of selecting a ‘correct’ one?

Let me offer a few potential answers that people give:

a) Because natural scientists know that it really just means ‘what they do at work’ and thus can’t be thought of in any way as ‘wrong’ because it is only a methodology, not an ideological claim.

That is what it is supposed to be, and exactly how @AllenWitmerMiller and I see it.

b) Because most people know that science & theology are really not in conflict, which is what that term signifies: peacekeeping so that no gods can be invoked in human science.

Well most people do not know that science and theology are not in conflict. But maintaining MN does keep the peace, as I have written about before:

Within science, MN functions as a treaty, but it also opens a schism.

On one hand it is a treaty. MN enforces a “cease fire” between the atheists and theists in science that respect it, by excluding scientific claims of creation, ID, and atheism. Of course individual scientists can still believe any of these things in their personal lives, and explore them academically in science-engaged philosophy, but they cannot make these claims within science itself.

On the other hand, disagreement about MN opens a schism between the ID movement and those that choose to live under this ceasefire (including myself) by accepting MN as the rule of science. Those that do not like MN feel unfairly excluded from science, and the rest of us feel efforts to end MN threaten the peace.

I’m solidly on the side of MN (even though it is incorrectly named). It a key part of how science works, because it enables peace between people how have very different views on God.

c) Because only theists promote methodological non-naturalism (though that ‘might be incorrectly named’) in natural science … but that is not what Peaceful Science means.

No. Atheists also promote methodological non-naturalism, often so they can then make religious claims against God using science’s authority. This would as equally the “heretical religious” as ID is the “fantastical science”, from Bacon’s point of view. The reason to assert Bacon’s rule is to avoid both pitfalls.

d) Because if everybody else is using the term, I should use it too.

Sort of. Rather, the term is part of technical discourse, so it requires engagement. Even @Paul_Nelson us using the term, so as to avoid it. My point is not about the practice of MN, but rather in the confusion created by the precise term itself, and the amnesia about the theological roots. Qualifying my use of mitigates the problems with it. So, I’d use many of these terms;

  1. Methodological Naturalism (though its not correctly named)
  2. Bacon’s rule: Avoid the Superstitious Idol
  3. The scientific discipline of avoiding superstition
  4. Not including God in scientific explanations.
  5. One wise way of applying the Creator-Creation distinction in science.

e) Because there must be at least one living philosopher who continues to use the term properly.

And there is. Hans Halvorson is the Philosopher of Science at Princeton, a Christian, and uses the term correctly.

The scientific method has limitations: it might not be well-tuned for the discovery of every kind of truth. And of all people, a theist is most likely to think that some truths aren’t of the right sort to be fit into a scientific account of the world; some truths simply don’t fall under general laws, nor can they be accurately represented by means of mathematical models. That’s why a theist shouldn’t expect to find God in science — because science works by restricting itself to a more manageable kind of fact.
Hans Halvorson,

Though, Andrew Torrance and @Paul_Nelson have convinced me that the term is a problem. I agree with them on that. The solution is to recover is original grounding. That would guard against both “fantastical science” and “heretical religion”.

Also, at @auntyevology’s request, I should note that he is temporarily suspended till June 26 for abuse of anonymity. Maybe he will respond then, but I wanted to give him a chance to see how I think about this in the mean time. What is Abuse of Anonymity?

I can think of much “useful science” that could have been prompted by such a observation if it had actually happened. Scientists would have collected data indicating size, mass, speed, and location of the teapot. They would have researched possible scenarios by which a human-manufactured object (not just teapots) could have possibly reached escape velocity from the earth. (Here’s my favorite theory: I recall reading about YECs who believe that one of the ways in which the animals on Noah’s ark were returned to their home continents was being propelled through the atmosphere by volcanic explosions. Perhaps one such explosion was a bit too powerful and some other items from the ark happened to make it all the way into outer space. OK, I’ll admit that not all Young Earth Creationists have a good grasp of g-forces and the survival prospects of things like small mammals and teapots. And I’m obviously not saying that all of my YEC friends and former associates believe this “volcano hypothesis.” But I can’t help but be fascinated by this way of thinking whenever I read about it online.)

Postscript: Hmmm. If scientists had observed pairs of dinosaurs in the same solar orbit as the teapot, that might have added credence to the “volcanic propulsion of Noah’s ark animals” theory.

I really should get back to my work projects before I get too distracted by these recollections.

1 Like


Isn’t he excluding contingency in so many words, like wot I sed? General laws and mathematical models describe the regular (how could they do otherwise?).

I notice he’s dealing, still, with the physical world (so he’s not simply removing ethics or religious feeling from science). As Paul says, the role of mind within nature is involved (possible, if one considers God - even probable, if the common interpretations of quantum theory are true).

At very least, this kind of limitation to naturalism in science ought to make the charge of “God of the gaps” thinking very much more in need of specific justification on a case by case basis. Seems to me “God of the gaps” belongs more to metaphysical than methodological naturalism.

[Just seen a peregrine falcon fly over the house - how cool is that!]

1 Like

Try and note where the quote is from. Here you mean Hans Halvorson.

No. You are misreading him, and equating nature with science. Science is just one way of studying nature. There are other ways of studying it, and science isn’t nature itself.

He is saying a theist should not expect to find God in an effort designed to study creation. In the same way, we do not expect to find Pollack in one of his paintings, or Ansel Adams in one of his photographs.

Hans, I’m sure, would hold that God is involved in nature, and might even act within it. However, that is just not what science is concerned with.

Echoing Bacon, we are interesting creation, not the Creator, when we do science. Theology is concerned with the Creator, and can also engage with science. That is encouraged. Science, however, is concerned with the regular operation of creation, without denying that the Creator might act within creation, and without denying that their is not regular things in creation.

I would agree.

Very cool. Unique, but also regular. =)

To be clear, I’m not saying God is not here, in the world. I’m rather saying finding Him isn’t the point of the art project. Something else is going on. Instead of finding Him, we are being exposed to His eternal attributes.

Expanding on this is a Lutheran theologian (see this @J.E.S):

Why isn’t there more clear evidence for God in nature?@Swamidass

I think of God as a poet or an artist. Perhaps God’s work of creation is like that of an artist creating something beautiful, rather than a lawyer trying to make a case for His existence. If so, the question is beside the point; akin to asking why would a poet put archaisms in her poem (and then not leave evidence that they are archaisms)?

Regarding poems, discussion of a poem and its features starts on the emotional level, before the the cognitive or logical. How does the poem affect you? What happens inside of you when you read it? How does the poem work to produce emotion?

Our answers explore the emotions the poetry evokes, and our reactions to the features we see. We would investigate how the poet uses language to create the effects she does. We would talk of mystery and maybe simple wonder, even curiosity. We would admire the poet’s skill as a language shaper. (Though, we would not question the author’s existence.)

Here, Saleska explains a very Baconian approach to science. I like it because it shows how science is predicated on Creation, rather seeking to prove Creation, from a Christian point of view. This makes sense to me.

He goes on to aptly say:

So, if we think of God the Creator as an artist, the “problem” that the question raises is eased. There is no reason (as we are talking about reason) at all. And we are not under any pressure to come up with that kind or reason. It is sort of beside the point. The intentions or the mind of God in his work of art can’t be discerned. I also think of God’s work of Creation in light of something Daniel Siedell has written about artists. He writes that we want artists to tell us, once for all, ‘what the painting means,’ yet this is contrary to how artists understand their work. Art fights against this notion.

Compare that with taking God as apologist, or God as designer.

1 Like

That’s a very important perspective. I hadn’t previously noticed Dr. Saleska’s article on I’ve heard Hebrew OT professors make some of those points but Saleska appears to develop them much more deeply and certainly in a very beautiful way.

1 Like

FWIW, I’ve never considered causation “through implementation of thought” to be outside of methodological naturalism. After all, we study human and animal behavior in science. Thus MN doesn’t rule out the output work of God(s) a priori. But what science won’t tell you is if the agent behind the actions is a transcendent being of some sort.

As Arthur Clarke noted: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The reason ID in biological origins isn’t considered seriously by most scientists is not so much because it invokes God(s). It has not gained traction because it hasn’t developed a positive, working theoretic and hasn’t provided much in terms of alternate explanatory power. There are any number of scientists who would be open to ID but hold serious reservations because they don’t see where it can go as a research program.


That said, I’ve always thought the term, “natural science” covers everything nicely. One doesn’t get an academic degree in methodological naturalism. One gets a degree in the natural sciences.

You don’t do methodological naturalism. You do science.


@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.

However, as I’ve said, the real distinction is not material vs. non-material, it is Creator vs. creation. We do include the minds of creatures in science as causal entities, but not the mind of a Creator. Immediately, it becomes coherent.

It’s not about whether minds are material per se (…though that is a research area of neurobiology. We’re not sure what minds are except that we and other creatures may have them). It’s about whether there is something that effects a material change. Such events, influences and outcomes can be studied.

I don’t see any a priori reason why the actions of a Creator could categorically not be studied. Depending on the nature of a Creator and its mode of action, this may be difficult, but I do not see why it would have to be impossible in principle. What we would have trouble establishing is whether it was a Creator or a creator at work. Thor could be a God, or someone from a technically advanced civilization.


I need to clarify, as I think you’re still misreading me (and we’ll continue to discuss this in the future, so it’s good to be clear).

I was not suggesting that Halvorson excludes contingency from nature (ie that there are only general laws and mathematical models) but from science (ie that science deals only in general laws and mathematical models). I should have expressed myself more clearly.

Quite so - my aim in this discussion has been to clarify that fact in the description of the methodology: science deals with the regular operations of nature - therefore its methodology is regularism. One could retain the word “naturalism” if one prefers, having clarified what “nature” actually means, ie that which is regular in creation (as opposed, for example, to the common idea that nature is whatever God doesn’t do).

Of course, defining “nature” in that way would have made it it incoherent for you to have written instead “…without denying that the Creator might act within creation, and without denying that their is not regular things in nature.” Irregular things in the regular things of nature would be a contradiction.

My only disagreement if you’re OK with that is that, historically, from the Fathers through Calvin and the Reformers through to nineteenth century theologians and theistic scientists, the regularities that science works on in a secular manner have been seen as evidence revealing the Pollack or the Adams behind the work. I don’t know how many of the Fathers I’ve read saying, along with Irenaeus, that in creation, God makes visible to us his invisible attributes. It’s as close to the core doctrine of the theology of creation as anything else. However, as you add in your next post, for science to set aside that revelation as a “self-limiting ordinance”, the better to understand the relations between aspects of creation, is fine - as long as it is acknowledged as a purely methodological move. Most early Christian scientists did that (Bacon, maybe, less so than most).

The “celestial engineer” quote I find to be troubling in its rhetorical contrast of the artist with the engineer. An opponent could easily have recast it like this:

God the Creator is not a celestial artist at work on some vague aesthetic concept that will impress the Turner Prize Committee, but an engineer who gets his hands dirty making stuff that works and is actually useful."

Coming from a long line of engineers (in ironwork since 1820, folks), I appreciate Alexandr Solzhenytsyn’s attitude that they are the salt of the earth. But personally, I’m a musician, so I also appreciate that art is different from engineering. As far as its cultural context goes, Scripture is happy to use artisan imagery such as the potter for God’s Creatorhood, potters being engaged in both practical and aesthetic matters. You may find praise for the beauty of the things he creates, and his engineering skill (Job’s wonder at his filling clouds with water and still keeping them up in the sky, for example).

The Bible goes beyond both analogies, of course - he is also pictured as a king commanding things to happen, an architect making a great public building, a parent both begetting and caring for his works, and other things too. I find it problematic to elevate one at the expense of another, especially by the use of rhetoric (such as the denial of his sovereignty in creation with words like “puppetmaster calling all the shots”).

How much of his work in all these ways is available to science? None, once we have recognised its methodological limitations (and one reason these are not recognised is that, as Argon says, degrees are awarded for science - philosophy of science often goes by the board, so that scientists are often less aware of their modus operandi than they should be.)

How much of his work in all these ways is available to humanity? That’s a very different question. There are many humans who are not bound by the methodology of science. Oddly enough there are no scientists who are not also fully human.

1 Like