Methodological Naturalism, So Falsely Called

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #1

Considering this more closely…

Are there any natural scientists who are not ideological naturalists? If so, how is that possible?
Thinking About Falsifiability and Abiogenesis
Is Abiogenesis an hypothesis in distress?
Is Abiogenesis an hypothesis in distress?
Miracles and Methodological Naturalism
Clinton Ohlers: Two Parables on Divine Action
Nonlin Asks About Methodological Naturalism?

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.
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.
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.
d) Because if everybody else is using the term, I should use it too.
e) Because there must be at least one living philosopher who continues to use the term properly.

(George) #3


So what’ wrong with the phrase “Methodological Naturalism”?

This definition seems reasonably on point:

“Methodological naturalism is a strategy for studying the world, by which scientists choose not to consider supernatural causes - even as a remote possibility. There are two main reasons for pursuing this strategy. First, some scientists believe that there is no supernatural: they begin with the assumption that God does not exist (see atheism) and that there is no life after death (see also Atheism and life after death). Second, some scientists believe it is possible that supernatural causes (such as God and angels) may exist, but they assume that any supernatural action would be arbitrary or haphazard and therefore impossible to study systematically.”

The Wiki article on Naturalism provides this information on its first use (the footnote cites the article “Re: Methodological Naturalism” in the publication “ASA March 2006”):

"Methodological vs. Metaphysical" Naturalism

“The term “methodological naturalism” had been used in 1937 by Edgar S. Brightman in an article in The Philosophical Review as a contrast to “naturalism” in general, but there the idea was not really developed to its more recent distinctions.”

A more recent use and expansion of the term, "… [a]ccording to Ronald Numbers… was [re-]coined in 1983 by Paul de Vries, a Wheaton College philosopher. De Vries distinguished between what he called “methodological naturalism,” a disciplinary method that says nothing about God’s existence, and “metaphysical naturalism,” which “denies the existence of a transcendent God.”

On De Vries: “Paul de Vries majored in mathematics with a physics minor at Calvin College, went on to receive an M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy at the U. of Virginia. He has taught at five colleges and universities, including ten years at Wheaton (1979-89), where he founded the Center for Applied Christian Ethics. He is currently active in several efforts to promote international discussions of ethical values. With five other scholars (two Americans and three Soviets), he helped found the International Research Institute on Value Changes. For further information, contact the section’s executive secretary, Bob Voss, 103 N. Prospect St., Washington, NJ 07882; tel. (201) 689-0910.”

More on Wheaton College:

Undergraduates 2,400
Postgraduates 500

“Wheaton College is a Christian, residential liberal arts college and graduate school in Wheaton, Illinois, a suburb 25 miles (40 km) west of Chicago.[3] The Protestant college was founded by evangelical abolitionists in 1860. Wheaton College was a stop on the Underground Railroad and graduated one of Illinois’ first African-American college graduates. Wheaton is noted for its “twin traditions of quality academics and deep faith,”[5] according to Time magazine and is ranked 20th among all national liberal arts colleges in the number of alumni who go on to earn PhDs. Wheaton is included in Loren Pope’s influential book Colleges That Change Lives. It has been described as one of America’s foremost Christian institutions.”

MORE Back Story
The first methodological naturalist is sometimes considered to have been Thales,[1] who explained earthquakes (which were traditionally attributed to the anger of the god Poseidon) with an early theory of plate tectonics .

Roger Pennock declared that “science is not based upon a dogmatic ontological or metaphysical naturalism, but rather makes use of naturalism only in a heuristic, methodological manner.”

According to Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, “The philosophical doctrine of methodological naturalism holds that, for any study of the world to qualify as “scientific,” it cannot refer to God’s creative activity (or any sort of divine activity).” The possibility of divine intervention in nature is not only neglected, but positively dismissed.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #4

So this is an interesting point, that goes to a core of the debate. As we enter here, I want to assert the I do affirm methodological naturalism. In science, as it is practiced today, we do not include God in hypothesis in science. For this reason, science is silent on theological claims. This rule, it seems, has been an indispensable part of the modern practice of science, even though it is hotly contested by creationist groups and Intelligent Design.

However, I also say that it is “not correctly named.” This is a development that I owe to both @paulnelson and a long conversation with Andrew Torrance last year, and also Clinton Ohlers. This the same Andrew Torrance that will be responding to me at Dabar.

The key point is that the concept “methodological naturalism” arises very early on in science, at least as early as Bacon’s Novum Organum. When it first arises, it is not a product of naturalism or atheism. Rather, it is an application (which might be disputed) of a particular understanding of the Creator / creation distinction. The point was is that this rule is best grounded in that theological concept, not a naturalism.

So why doesn’t naturalism work? There is a lot of work out there (often proffered by ID) that makes some legitimate points. How do we define “natural” and “supernatural”? Why do we exclude something that doesn’t exist? How do we even define what is allowed and not, without reference to a well defined concept of God? These questions become very difficult to define, and lead to contradictions and inconsistencies.

This all goes away if we understand it as saying that, for Christian theological reasons, we choose to exclude the Christian God from scientific explanations. Now it all makes much more sense why rules work the way they do. And it also helps, for example, ID people to understand the legitimate motivations for such an exclusion. Rather than challenging that rule, we could be instead be recovering the theological motivations put forward by, for example, Bacon and Boyle and others to justify it.

So I do affirm methodological naturalism. However, it is better grounded in theology than naturalism, and the name “naturalism” makes it a needlessly conflicted term among people that dislike naturalism. This does not mean that one has to agree with Christian theology to practice methodological naturalism. Right now, it is just the rule of science, and most people who abide by it are certainly not Christians.

Any how, so that is why I think it is not correctly called that. Haven’t found a good and neutral term to replace it though. So ti seems we are stuck with the name for now.

(Retired Professor & Minister.) #5

Whatever we call it, we can surely all agree that the tools and procedures of the Scientific Method are limited to the investigation of natural processes because that is the only kinds of processes those tools and procedures are capable of investigating. As Francis Collins and many others have declared in so many words: “If you want me to scientifically investigate angels, bring me the Angel Detector from the lab.”

Philosophers recognized that Natural Philosophy is a domain where the scientific tools and procedures can be very powerful and useful in explaining natural processes----but recognized that they usually aren’t very useful outside of that domain. That’s why science can be great for studying amino acids but not angels.

I guess the word naturalism is downright incendiary for a lot of people. Many think it a synonym for “godlessness” or even all that is evil. So I can see why many would like to abandon the term “methodological naturalism” entirely.

That said, I personally am not all that bothered by the term “methodological naturalism” because I know it is not the same thing as “philosophical naturalism” or atheism.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #6

Same here. However…

This is why I feel it is necessary to qualify it is not correctly named.

Moreover, it is well motivated in Christian theology. Focusing there has some real value for some people.

(Retired Professor & Minister.) #7

I have been surprised that many of the ID advocates who have plenty of background in science (and even in philosophy) are so prone to complaining about methodological naturalism as being “atheistic” or even evil—because surely they understand what the term means and doesn’t mean. (I’m tempted to ask if some of them are guilty of engaging in demagoguery by exploiting the people who don’t properly grasp such terms, but I don’t know if I want to stir the pot in that manner. Obviously, it would be a generalization. Whether that constitutes an unfair generalization may be another incendiary topic.)

Anyway, these topics have been fun today but I need to get back to a focus on a long overdue project. I appreciate interacting with each and every one of you. It’s been fun.


Are there any natural scientists who are not ideological naturalists? I much prefer this question because it precedes Joshua’s largely semantics + networks dilemma.

If a natural scientist, by methodological fiat, cannot stop from being an ideological naturalist, then there is a problem in the conversation. If a natural scientist can stop being an ideological naturalist, isn’t that just another way of saying that they can simply do natural science without the naturalism?

Otherwise there is no reason or need for Joshua to promote ideological naturalism simply in order to protect or defend the methodologies his particular science and other sciences use in their fields of study. He is trying to make a non-issue into an issue as if all ‘methods’ used by scientists must be ideologically naturalistic and that is surely false.

(I) Haven’t found a good and neutral term to replace it though. So ti seems we are stuck with the name for now.

Hmmm… I --> We in this case? You are stuck means others also must be stuck? That does not seem necessary as a requirement or a limit of some kind you are identifying.

I find Joshua’s discussion of ‘methodological naturalism’ (here & elsewhere) ill-worded & poorly conceived and do not wish to participate in it.


In this case, Allen, I’d actually defend the top ID people on the topic. They have a far more coherent, well-read, researched, strategic and prepared understanding of what ‘methodological naturalism’ is and is not, what it should be and should not be understood as meaning, what it is best compared or contrasted with and what is worst, etc. than anyone at BioLogos. This doesn’t make the ID argument about methodological naturalism coherent. Blame Paul de Vries for this. Ethicist.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #10

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.

(George) #11

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 …

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #12

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

(George) #13

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

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #15

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.

(Curtis Henderson) #16

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.

(Retired Professor & Minister.) #18

I very much like that summation.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #19

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.

Macro- vs. Micro-Evolution
(S. Joshua Swamidass) #21

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”.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #22

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?

(Retired Professor & Minister.) #23

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.

The RTB Science-Scripture Integration