Welcome to Terrell Clemmons: Questions on Methodological Naturalism

I’d like to welcome @terrellclemmons to the forum. Terrell is a freelance writer, apologist and blogger who frequently writes for Salvo Magazine. Her most recent article which sparked our conversation was the following: Baptizing Darwin by Terrell Clemmons - Salvo Magazine, where she questions whether Biologos (and evolutionary creationists in general) are faithfully and properly integrating science and Christianity. The article is written from a pro-ID viewpoint. It led to an exchange between me and Terrell about what methodological naturalism really is, as understood by someone in the TE/EC camp. This is a topic which has been discussed recently here, including in our series of threads dealing with supernatural/natural distinction:

To pick up on where we left off, one particular point which kept surfacing in our conversation was Jonathan Wells’ accusation that in methodological naturalism (MN), "materialistic philosophy is running the show."

@terrellclemmons clarified that

That’s just Wells’s colloquial way of saying that the terms and boundaries of all of the reasoning are defined and delimited by materialism, which is consistent with what you’ve explained to me with your phrase, “science as it is practiced today.”

In a strict sense, this is true, if by “materialistic” one means non-supernatural or non-spiritual. Although it turns out not everyone here agrees with me (see Defining the Supernatural: A Recap), I maintain that the science does not and cannot investigate the supernatural, because the behavior of the supernatural is not circumscribed by a set of simple, unambiguous, mechanistic, falsifiable rules which is necessary to scientific reasoning.

However, what I do not like about this phrase (which is quite characteristic of much of pro-ID rhetoric) is the hidden implication that science is controlled by the views of philosophical materialists, who believe that the supernatural does not exist. On the contrary, MN only reflects the fact that science is a limited set of tools which developed primarily on the basis of what has historically “worked” and what didn’t. No group of elite scientists have ever sat down and decided that supernatural explanations are forbidden. Rather, over the centuries scientists have naturally found that it is most fruitful for science to be done by positing only tightly circumscribed, unambiguous, mechanistic, falsifiable explanations, all of which do not apply to supernatural agents. (Thus, one could say that God has designed the universe in such a way that adopting MN makes it most amenable to empirical investigation. It is God’s doing, not that of atheistic scientists!)

This does not mean that when one is adopting MN in science, one becomes ruled by materialistic philosophy. Most ECs affirm that God is knowable through Scripture, personal revelation and history. (A recent survey of a popular majority-TE/EC group on FB found that over 90% believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.) In addition, far from adopting a deistic view of God, I maintain that God is necessary to sustain the regular operations of the laws of the universe that make science possible. The important difference is that I don’t think this is a scientific argument, but a philosophical one. This is not just a pedantic difference, but one which determines, for example, whether we regard evolution and Design as complementary or opposing each other.

Does this clarify things, @terrellclemmons?


Is this true?
What do you say to people like @T_aquaticus and @nwrickert who then point to this fact and say, there is “empirical” evidence only for natural processes and hence they find themselves inclined to believe that’s all that exists?

Or people like @Faizal_Ali who seem to think that supporting science is the same as being against creation by a God?

What’s the use of an investigation tool that provides some facts but decieves (seemingly a large number of people) about Truth (i.e God).

MN might have been conceived as a limited tool, but it’s rarely used as such.

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Do people become or remain atheists primarily because of seeing the success of science? Seeing several deconversion stories from atheists, science is just one factor, if at all. In addition, the scientistic philosophy of “it only exists if I can see it through science” is a relatively modern (last 300 years, if not last 100 years) viewpoint. It is also a philosophical, not scientific presupposition.

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It’s a philosophical foundation derived from MN.

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That does not correctly represent my view.

I hold that science is based on empirical evidence. But I do not make any assertions about whether that implies material or natural. Science can investigate whenever it can find useful evidence. Whether that evidence should be considered material or natural is not a question for science.


Sorry if I misstated you position.
Are you saying that, Science can investigate “evidence” which might lead to a conclusion of some kind of supernatural/unnatural activity?
Would you call things like “para psychology” pseudoscience or a genuine way of doing science?

Science can investigate evidence and attempt to explain it.

Whether what it has explained is supernatural, is not up to science to decide. However, experience suggests that what science explains will usually be considered (by the population at large) to be natural.

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Welcome @terrellclemmons, thank you for joining us. Looking forward to learning about your point of view. I think we discussed this a bit on facebook. I appreciate your willingness to engage.


I am not sure this is accurate.
Your view seems to think that scientists do not distuinguish between “natural” and “non-natural” causes when proposing exlanations. This is false.
Scenitist are careful to propose explanations that are considered natural by them and will be recieved as “natural” by their colleagues.

This is why non natural explanations such as “ghosts” or “telepathy” supplied by fields such as para psychology are outright rejected by Scientists and the discipline itself is considered as pseudo Science.

Obviously, Explanations filtered for being “natural” and carefully presented as such will be considered natural by the large majority of the population.

Methodological naturalism is not a philosophical presupposition of science. No one has to check a “this hypothesis was generated under strictly naturalistic assumptions” box when submitting a journal article. Methodological naturalism describes the practice of science – what scientists actually do.

From what I’ve seen of our atheist, and especially agnostic, friends here, I suspect they would not object to the possibility, as long as:

  • the hypothesis was “good” (not right or wrong, but well-formed), which means it makes specific predictions that are falsifiable and empirically testable
  • the methodology was reproducible
  • the data/results were open to review

I don’t think this is actually the case. At least I’ve never seen that reasoning. I’ve never heard of a scientist saying “Well, it could be X, but that’s a “non-natural” cause so we can’t go with that one”. Scientists, generally, seem to be quite wary of philosophy so I don’t imagine they think much about natural vs non-natural at all.

All people have philosophical assumptions, but it really doesn’t affect science itself very much. At times that means scientists have a hard time distinguishing where science ends and philosophy begins, but that’s not science’s fault. I think you’re assuming that people decide what’s natural and non-natural and then say “science is limited to the natural”, when in fact it’s rather more like looking at what is amenable to scientific inquiry and saying “that’s natural!”. Some take the added position that there is nothing beyond the natural, while other’s don’t. In either case, that really doesn’t have much of anything to do with science itself.


Ok fair enough…
Can you tell.me whether the work done by the below group of scientists is according to MN/the Scientific method?
Selected Scientific Papers - Campaign for Open Science

Well, I couldn’t find any. There were a list of “journals”, mostly defunct or in existence less than 10-15 years. None of the articles were in reputable scientific journals, almost all were devoid of experimental data, and none that I could see in my sampling had anything approaching a “methods” section. In other words, I couldn’t find anything identifiable as “science”, irregardless of the subject matter.

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I wonder if it is “irregardless” of subject matter.
Would you be able to design an experiment to test any of these claims (say one of telepathy between twins in some cases) ?
If so how would you go about it?

Hmm, I guess I’d separate the twins by some distance, making sure that there were no communication devices available, something like a sealed, sound-proof room with a Faraday cage :slight_smile: . I’d probably try to have a “blind” system for giving one twin a list of words at a regular interval (maybe every 10 seconds) and then separately ask the other twin for a word at the same time. The null hypothesis would then be there there is no correlation between the words that the two people say/think. You’d then have to do a good statistical analysis to determine if there was anything significant. If there was I’d try to figure out what variables (take away the Faraday cage maybe) might change the results, etc.

I’m not in the social sciences so I’m just going off the top of my head, others may have a better approach.


“Informal experiments” similar to what you described have been done. Let me quote an example -

For a television show in 2003, Playfair set up a test for twins Richard and Damien Powles. Richard was placed in a sound-proof booth with a bucket of ice water while Damien was some distance away in another studio hooked up to a polygraph machine(a “lie detector” machine that measures respiration, muscle and skin response. When Richard plunged his hand into the ice water and let out a gasp, there was an obvious blip on Damien’s polygraph that measured his respiration, as if he too had let out a gasp.

In a similar experiment before a live TV audience in 1997, twin teenagers Elaine and Evelyn Dove were likewise separated. Elaine was in the sound-proof booth with a pyramid-shaped box while Evelyn was sequestered in another room with the polygraph. When Elaine was sitting relaxed, suddenly the box exploded in a harmless but shocking pop of sparks, flashes, and colored smoke. Evelyn’s polygraph recorded her psychic reaction at the same moment, with one of the needles running right off the edge of the paper.

Playfair is quick to admit that these were not experiments conducted with the strictest scientific protocols, yet it is difficult to explain their outcomes.

And there was a reason that Playfair used cold water and the element of surprise in his experiments rather than having the twins try to communicate the number and suit of a specific playing card or another such thing. The physical and emotional response could be the key to making it work. “Telepathy tends to work best when it is needed,” he says, “and when sender and receiver are strongly bonded, as with mothers and babies, dogs and their owners, and those with the strongest bond of all—twins.”

I wonder why no one bothered to pursue such experiments on a formal level.

Are you sure there haven’t been? Social scientists love twin studies.


If you know of any, it would be great to know. I have not come across anything other than anecdotes, TV show demonstrations etc… And these things obviously have limited reliability.

Edit: I did find a very interesting study which suggests that the “twin” phenomenon is more related to having similar thoughts rather than telepathy-

I also found some “crazy studies” like this -


Do you think the second set follow the “scientific method” ?

Wikipedia references laboratory studies into twin telepathy that found no evidence:

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Why should we believe in something for which there is no evidence?


I didn’t really say anything about what scientists do. I commented only on the limitations of science (to be distinguished from what scientists do).

Scientists are humans, and as humans they are all over the map on what they will say about what is or is not natural. We don’t have a clear meaning for “natural”, so we should not be surprised if there is disagreement.

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