I recently read a fantastic article in the latest Philosophia Christi by Stephen C. Dilley entitled “Philosophical Naturalism and Methodological Naturalism: Strange Bedfellows?” and I just had to share its central thesis here.
Dilley argues that “philosophical naturalists who draw epistemic support from science for their worldview ought to set aside methodological naturalism in certain historical science” (118).
Methodological Naturalism (MN) is generally the position that within science, one should never appeal to a supernatural explanation. Philosophical Naturalism (PN) is broadly defined as the belief that the world consits only of the natural, that is, that there are no supernatural entities (and thus theism is false). Here, of course, astute readers will almost instantly notice the problem with utilizing such a position to try to gain epistemic support for PN. The problem is, as Dilley points out, that using MN to epistemically justify PN is circular.
Let us examine this problem more fully. One consequence of MN is that “God hypotheses… cannot receive evidential confirmation within the context of science” (127). Of course, this doesn’t mean that “…God hypotheses do not receive scientific confirmation… but that they cannot… No possible emphasis can confirm God hypotheses within a scientific context, no matter what the evidence actually is. That is just what MN entails” (127, emphasis his).
Again, readers will probably already see where this is going. The problem of circularity here rears its ugly head. On the one hand, hypotheses which would disconfirm PN are ruled out a priori from scientific investigation. On the other hand, adherents of PN seem to want to utilize scientific evidence to confirm PN and disconfirm rival hypotheses. But then, while MN is in effect, PN cannot be criticized scientifically (129). This is because the central thrust of MN is to rule out supernatural hypotheses, which, in turn, rules out any kind of rival position for PN. Again, this doesn’t even appeal to any kind of scientific evidence for God or lack thereof, because such evidence isn’t even considered, a priori.
And then, following from this, PN will always receive confirmation from MN, because it cannot be otherwise. This is because MN rules out any rival hypotheses by definition. Again, it doesn’t even matter if naturalistic explanations would be superior to theistic explanations, because, given MN, there cannot even be a side-by-side comparison!
Thus, those who wish to utilize MN as some way to draw epistemic support for PN are sadly misguided. It simply cannot be done, because MN can’t even consider rival hypotheses. Instead, the joint usage of PN and MN show just another reason that naturalism is a practice in self-affirmation. Obviously, naturalism is going to appear superior to theism if we rule out theism before we even begin to investigate! Clearly, those who wish to justify PN cannot utilize MN to do so.
Dilley, Stephen C, “Philosophical Naturalism and Methodological Naturalism: Strange Bedfellows?” Philosophia Christi, 12-1, 2010, p. 118-141.
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