Methodological Naturalism, So Falsely Called


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.

Salt is good, especially on french fries. I agree wholeheartedly with Ted’s point that, coming out of medieval practice, theologians were advised to stay within their faculties. One of my undergraduate advisors at Pitt, the philosopher Nicholas Rescher, once gave me some book galleys from one of his forthcoming projects, where the late medieval Latin tag loosely translated as “Nothing in science refers to theology” was prominently featured.

On the other hand – you knew that was coming – it would be historical malpractice to pretend that the natural philosophers of the Scientific Revolution, or really any natural philosopher right up until the Origin of Species (1859), would have endorsed our current conception of MN. “The statements of science must invoke only natural things and processes” (National Academy of Sciences, 1998), the best short formulation of MN that I know, would have been entirely alien to (for instance) Robert Boyle, or even Darwin’s teachers at Cambridge. If “natural” means “strictly physical or material,” they would have frowned in deep disagreement. Organisms were created by divine intelligence.

Everything turns on what may be considered a real cause, and thus within the bailiwick of natural science. If intelligence is real and irreducible to physics, then any ontology of causes restricted to physics and its derivatives (MN) will limit the freedom of scientists to discover what might be the case. Plenty of atheists and agnostics understand this, and don’t like MN precisely for that reason.


I think the term, “intelligence” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in this statement. There’s a pile of metaphysics wrapped up in a single word that maybe needs to be unpacked.

As I see it, and if there is a ‘physically irreducible intelligence’ as Paul suggests, then that suggests that ultimate causes of some things may be inaccessible to scientific inquiry. That doesn’t rule out the discovery of proximate / local causal chains. Further, these local causal chains might be followed back to a point where science would get no further (irreducible intelligence) and which scientists would classify as belonging to a group of ‘unknown’ causes.

As I see it, science won’t get to the point of ascertaining whether some events are caused by God(s), whereas a theistically inclined philosopher might. I don’t see that as a big thing. After all, ID is premised on the idea that the interactions of some ‘intelligent agent(s)’ might be discernable in the history of life. Scienitists know examples of intelligent agents (and to be sure, where does ID get its notion of ‘intelligence’ except from these same organisns’?), and have determined causal chains leading to those. So there’s no a priori reason that prevents the discovery of a possible role of ‘intelligence’ in the history of life. It’s my understanding that this is precisely the sort of approach that Bill Dembski and Mike Behe were taking with their work. Theirs fit perfectly well within traditional, scientific frameworks.

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It takes good intelligence to recognize that “intelligence” is doing the heavy lifting here. From whence did you come by intelligence? What’s its sufficient cause, in your view?


Wow… I had no idea how attached you are to this idea that we can’t make a distinction.

I don’t seem to feel any awkwardness regarding such matters. To me, the study of natural laws is the study of what could happen (forecasting events and analyzing historical events) IF the nature being examined has no “intentional awareness”.

And for those times that we are analyzing living things, that the living creatures in question may have various kinds of “awareness”, but not the ability to consciously override lawful nature; their ability to manipulate events would be limited to lawful engagement with the phenomenon in question.

No doubt, you are not thrilled with these definitions, but I think it is exactly what is going on in the mind of scientists when they are studying anything that might be considered to involve supernatural aspects.

God makes rain: scientists employ only those assumptions and premises that involve evaporation and/or anything else in the realm of physics, rather than theology.

If God does make some rain using supernatural processes, science would have no way of evaluating that. I think most all scientists are satisfied with this distinction.


I think @swamidass not only accepts that, he also (simultaneously) agrees that while Christians practicing science acknowledge this spiritual perspective, he or she will still conduct investigations based on the idea that the events being investigated are those that God would ordinarily engage using only Natural Laws.

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I hope Paul will provide more clarification there.

You could start a separate thread on ‘sufficient causes’ and epistemology.

Returning to the discussion further up this thread, on the hsitory of naturalism, here’s an interesting quote on the beginnings of the Royal Society, from William Whiston: Honest Newtonian by James E Force (p123-4)

From the beginnings of the Royal Society, its founders argued that natural philosophy leads man to God, not away from him. The early Christian virtuosi who were prominent in founding the Royal Society generally insisted that their inquiries into the operations of the laws of nature revealed strong evidence of creative general providence and a specially provident deity capable of direct intervention into and disruption of the orderly operation of the generally provident machine of nature. Bishop John Wilkins, Sir Walter Charleton, Robert Boyle, and Bishop Thomas Sprat all argued that nature reveals both general and special providence, although they also generally agreed with Wilkins that it is “not reasonable to think that the universal laws of nature, by which things are to be guided in their natural course, should frequently or upon every little occasion be violated or disordered.”

Newton, a president of the next generation of the Royal Society, and William Whiston (who was not a member) also laboured to preserve both kinds of divine providence. As Whiston makes clear, this project was necessitated by the success of Newtonian versions of the design argument in demonstrating God’s creative general providence.

The separation of “science” and “divine action” was, therefore, much less clear in the Royal Society (and hence eraly science) than has usually been portrayed.

The point to ponder in the context of theistic evolution and creation is that phrase “every little occasion” regarding special providence, which they tended to view as “miraculous,” or at least supernatural (special providence) rather than natural (general providence). Although the phrase seems open-ended, their theological milieu would have had them understand serious plagues, earthquakes or unexpected military deliverances to belong to such “special providence.” In other words, there were special providences aplenty, but it followed by simple reasoning that if they happened all the time, the world would not be capable of scientific investigation at all. So how “frequent” is “on every little occasion”?

Bear in mind that Boyle knew James Ussher well, and praised his chronological work that determined creation at 4004BC. Their idea of “infrequent” with respect to special providence, then, is on a total timescale of 6,000 years rather than 12.5 billion.

If 17th century scientists had been told that species succeed species every few million years, they would surely not have regarded that as violation of nature on “every little occasion”, but as examples of major transitions which, hitherto, they had attributed to the first act of special creation.

Which is why we promote God-guided evolution.

4 posts were split to a new topic: The impossibility—and the necessity—of distinguishing science from nonscience