Methodological Naturalism, So Falsely Called

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