Methodological Naturalism, So Falsely Called

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.

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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.

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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.

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Just to add one more category of God’s Creatorhood - he is pictured as a lawmaker. And that’s the one aspect that science is equipped to investigate. It’s odd, though, how partitioning off such lawmaking into a secular pursuit somehow enables people to say that “science now knows that x is not caused by God, by by the laws of nature.”

However, it would be a gross error to decribe God as merely a lawmaker - yet many seem to come close such errors, by saying that God created the world we see entirely through the laws of nature. It seems that in that area, it’s accepted that one can investigate the works of God, but I’m not sure how that is conceptually distinct from any other kind of deduction about his works.

Back on the engineer/artist distinction, I’m not sure how one can maintain that when there was no such distinction through most of human history, until the last century or two: Leonardo was an artist and engineer, Phydias likewise in ancient Greece. And in the Bible, the artisans chosen by God to make the tabernacle (and recognised by Richard Middleton, for example, as being portrayed in conscious parallel to God’s role in the Genesis 1 narrative) and combine both practical and artistic skills by the Spirit of Yahweh:

Then the Lord said to Moses, 2 ‘See I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 3 and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills – 4 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 5 to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. 6 Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given ability to all the skilled workers to make everything I have commanded you: 7 the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant law with the atonement cover on it, and all the other furnishings of the tent – 8 the table and its articles, the pure gold lampstand and all its accessories, the altar of incense, 9 the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, the basin with its stand – 10 and also the woven garments, both the sacred garments for Aaron the priest and the garments for his sons when they serve as priests, 11 and the anointing oil and fragrant incense for the Holy Place. They are to make them just as I commanded you.’


Even though we speak of what we do as “Science” historically the study of the universe and the biota and material things in it have been considered to be the “Natural Sciences”. This is in contrast to the “Social Sciences” which include such things as Sociology. I might as well throw in the “Applied Sciences” such as Engineering.

My point is that “Natural Science” was not originally and should not be now the only kind of science which exists. Disciplines of study which use the Scientific Method to ascertain truth can and once were considered to be forms of science." more in article below…

Demarcation criteria prove very difficult for science at the best of times. As PoS guys have pointed out, there is no one methodology even within the “hard” sciences. I can’t but suppose that to seek to simplify everything by saying “natural science” leaves one without a clear idea either of what one means by “natural” or what one means by “science.”

One ends up with the cynical C S Lewis definition that “natural science is what is taught by natural science departments of universities.” A bit like what I learned (ironically) in social psychology: “Intelligence is what is measured by intelligence tests” - in other words by entirely arbitrary and subjective criteria.

But wasn’t his point in saying that the same as mine? That is, they are trying to expand the boundaries of nature to say that is all that there is?

Natural science then, is a study of the mechanics of creation. This is opposed to Theology where the nature of the Mechanic and His actions independent of the machinery are explored. To some extent, the social sciences also must be outside of the “natural” sciences since man is connected to God and if we have free will we too are somewhat outside the gears of the machine.

I hope that this way of looking at things addresses some of your very valid points about the boundary between natural and supernatural action possibly being an illusion or words to that effect.

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Scientists do science. Philosophers studying science and who try to create narrow, perfect criteria defining ‘science’ will always have employment. Science is a human enterprise and always going to be messy at the edges. The term ‘species’ isn’t perfectly defined yet in many instances and at particular levels, it works good enough.

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3 posts were split to a new topic: What is Pseudoscience?

I partly agree with Paul, insofar as Boyle and Newton (I assume also Linneaus, whom I haven’t read) certainly held that intelligence was an indispensable part of understanding the origin of the world and its contents–including biological organisms. Indispensable.

However, I partly disagree with Paul, in that there is much historical evidence that Christians helped advance the notion that natural philosophy needed to restrict its inquiries to “natural” (i.e., non-supernatural) causes. This is not necessarily the same thing as what Paul means by “MN in its modern form,” but certainly it’s a kind of limited naturalism, and it’s endorsed by Boyle and many others in the medieval and early modern periods. On Boyle’s endorsement of it, see this:

The standard rule at medieval universities, namely, that natural philosophers should keep out of theology, reflects its earlier origins. For example, Galileo (who had taught at Pisa and Padua for many years) alluded to this in a letter he wrote to Fr Pietro Dini (later archbishop of Fermo) in May 1615. “Yet for all of me any discussion of the sacred Scripture might have lain dormant forever; no astronomer or scientist who remained within proper bounds has ever got into such things.” (quoted by Stillman Drake, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, 165)

A full history of MN has not yet been written, but a wide-reaching historical project is well underway:

A limited type of naturalism has long been defended by Christian theologians and natural philosophers, long before modern times. Although Christians did not invent the ancient term, “law of nature,” Basil and others endorsed it early in Christian history and used it commonly long before natural philosophers picked up the term. That story does not equate with the history of MN, but it’s closely related.

So, I advise taking Paul’s blanket warning with two large lumps of salt.

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That is a superb quote !!!

I have seen some workable discussions about natural law in the Bible:

Acts 14:15-17
"… you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways… He did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

But there are more succinct ones:

Jeremiah 33:25-26: “Thus says the Lord: If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed order of heaven and earth, then will I cast away the seed of Jacob, and David my servant…”

Or perhaps this is a better one:
Jer 8:7
Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming; but my people know not the judgment of the LORD.

Job also has a substantial sprinkling of observations about nature, and that God is what keeps everything in its “lawful” place. Below is the New International Version of Job 28 (the King James is quite impenetrable with its version of the Hebrew):

Job 28:20-27
Where then does wisdom come from? Where does understanding dwell?
It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing, concealed even from the birds in the sky…
God understands the way to it [wisdom, or perhaps death?] and he alone knows where it dwells,
for he views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens.
When he established the force of the wind and measured out the waters,
when he made a decree for the rain and a path for the thunderstorm,
then he looked at wisdom and appraised it; he confirmed it and tested it.

But this one is my personal favorite:

Job 38:33
Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?

It provides the perfect context for how much the Universe does with God’s guidance and constant sustaining presence:

Job 38:25-33+ff
Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm,
to water a land where no one lives, an uninhabited desert, to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass?

… From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens when the waters become hard as stone [i.e. ice] when the surface of the deep is frozen?

[Cosmological and Astronomical laws] Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades? Can you loosen Orion’s belt? Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear [the animal? or the constellation?] with its cubs?

Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth? … Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’? Who gives the ibis wisdom or gives the rooster understanding?
[referring to the indigenous instincts particularly obvious in some animals]

… Who can tip over the water jars [i.e. “rain clouds”] of the sky when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together?"

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I really hope those talks plus the Q&As will be recorded and pushed to the interwebs!

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This text was reproduced in another group.

In 1930 Einstein authored a creed which he called “What I believe” which was based on his findings and included the following thought:

"Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe, a spirit vastly superior to man.” He followed that up by saying the evidence is so compelling that avoiding this conclusion is blind and lame.

Einstein is convinced there is a Universal power greater than humanity. However, arriving at this point, the reporter of Einstein’s creed describes Einstein’s skepticism that this Universal spirit is of a personal nature. What is of interest to this thread is how Einstein marshals his evidence about the pursuit of science and the nature of this Universal spirit:

[This is probably a paraphrased sentence]
“We know that science will never be authoritative as it relates to the supernatural, so we are left with a personal decision that is problematic because no amount of analysis will diminish all probabilities…”


Your quote, coming from Eisnstein in the light not of spiritual realities (as usually conceived), but the mystery of scientific realities, and in juxtaposition with Ted’s, provides a context for my “big picture” doubts about the the realism, in the 21st century, of maintaining the Baconian divide netween “natural” and “supernatural”.

That distinction was easy with Boyle’s mechanical philosophy and the early modern (primarily Protestant) descaralisation of “nature.” But there’s a pithy quote from Marilynne Robinson (which I’ve lost, so I’ll use a couple of less pithy ones), reflecting on the “unnaturalness” of what we now know through science:

But anyone who has spent an hour with abook on the new physics knows that our old mechanistic thinking, useful as it is for so many purposes, bears about the same relation to deeper reality that frost on a windowpane bears to everything beyond it, including the night sky and everything beyond that…

This old science is very much inclined to expose and denounce the impossible. It did much good service, and a good deal of harm as well. It set rationsilistic limits to what could be believed which are still widely honored, though little we know now and little we do now would satisfy eighteenth-century notions of the possible.

In other words, unless you can define “natural” and "supernatural "rigorously (and in our context, with theological orthodoxy), you can scarcely use them to delineate science from non-science.

Agreed; no matter our definitions, delineations, exclusions, conceptualizations, etc., we cannot succeed in denying God both “regular” AND “irregular” interactions within nature in a morally-infused, non-deterministic, yet highly-ordered universe.