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naturalism, philosophy

Methodological Naturalism: A Practice in Self-Affirmation?

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.

Source:

Dilley, Stephen C, “Philosophical Naturalism and Methodological Naturalism: Strange Bedfellows?” Philosophia Christi, 12-1, 2010, p. 118-141.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

18 thoughts on “Methodological Naturalism: A Practice in Self-Affirmation?

  1. Thank you for this article. It points out the bias towards secularism in the scientific community. God will not fit in a test tube. God could appear to the world and raise people from the dead, and it would still ignore him. Christians are not ignorant or superstitious. We are honest with the facts.

    Posted by poetwriter | July 23, 2010, 8:17 PM
  2. I literally just read this article. Weird. I did find it interesting. It highlights well the annoying habit of many atheistic scientists/authors to assume MN from the get-go and then proceed to use all their scientific prowess to disconfirm theism or ID or what-have-you (cough-Richard Dawkins-cough). Glad to see someone else noticed the double standard.

    Posted by Robert Whitaker | July 23, 2010, 9:23 PM
  3. All true, but equally true of all epistemologies, noetic structures, worldviews, etc.

    “Theism is generally the position that within religion, one should allow appeals to supernatural explanations. Here, of course, astute readers will almost instantly notice the problem with utilizing such a position to try to gain epistemic support for religious faith. The problem is that declaring that supernatural explanations are valid derives from the declaration that supernatural appeals are acceptable. Circularity.”

    So, I’ll grant that science is on no firmer footing than theism, reading entrails or ouija boards. It comes down to what party do you want to be in. I’m in the Science Party. So are you. You use a computer and go to emergency rooms (rather than relying solely on prayer) when necessary. Your problem is explaining why you use Scientism for some things and Theism for others.

    I have heard no good justification for switching between worldviews. It is an abandonment of basic consistency to do so. The fact that it’s widely practiced lends no philosophical support to it. People like Francis Collins are clearly satisfied with their positions, but the only way I can explain this is that they must compartmentalize and switch between modes, perhaps very frequently. The two worldviews are not compatible in the sense that one can utilize them simultaneously. You can be theistic, but not while you’re being scientific.

    Posted by Don Severs | July 23, 2010, 10:06 PM
    • Again, I’m still waiting for your justification of equivocating the term scientism, which you yourself defined as “scientific naturalism” with using science. For now, I think your comments are completely specious. You’ve continued to assume that everyone adheres to “scientism” (again, see your own definition, as it specifically says everyone is a naturalist) without providing any defense of this notion. Again, this is, for lack of a better response, a bunch of hot air.

      Furthermore, as far as your attempt to show theism entails circularity, note that theism doesn’t exclude naturalism, as MN excludes theistic explanations. Thus, theism actually allows for competitive analysis of worldviews, unlike the conjunct of MN and PN.

      I re-re-issue my challenge for you to give me some reason to believe what you have to say when you assert that everyone adheres to your definition of scientism. I charge that you cannot, which is why you haven’t. If you can’t, I suggest you stop making this absurd claim.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 23, 2010, 10:44 PM
  4. >give me some reason to believe what you have to say when you assert that everyone adheres to your definition of scientism

    My claim is much weaker than that. It’s simply that believers use scientific thinking along with their religious beliefs. I find this inconsistent.

    Any claim for any worldview can be accused of circularity. This feature isn’t confined to MN.

    >note that theism doesn’t exclude naturalism,

    In my view, theism and naturalism are incompatible. Your happy marriage of them is impossible. If demons or gods can reach in and modify outcomes via miracles, then naturalism isn’t true. If supernatural explanations are admitted, you open a yawning maw of medieval monstrosities. To allow supernaturalism, but only for your god, requires special pleading.

    I think you should postpone all your writing until you solve Alston’s religious diversity problem. You may have many sound arguments for theism in general, but that doesn’t get you to ‘Jesus is Lord’. And all of them can be used to defend absolutely any worldview, including Scientism.

    Posted by Don Severs | July 24, 2010, 9:23 AM
    • “In my view, theism and naturalism are incompatible. Your happy marriage of them is impossible. If demons or gods can reach in and modify outcomes via miracles, then naturalism isn’t true. If supernatural explanations are admitted, you open a yawning maw of medieval monstrosities. To allow supernaturalism, but only for your god, requires special pleading.”

      Again, you have conflated “naturalism” with using empiricism to explore the universe. Naturalism is not the only way to go about science, which is, of course, exactly what this post was trying to point out. Perhaps your own marriage of PN with MN has blinded you to other possibilities of using science. Science does not equal naturalism, without remainder, nor does it work vice versa, yet this seems to be how you are using the term. Definitions matter.

      You said that your claim was much weaker than the claim that everyone adheres to your definition of scientism. I charge that you are being intentionally dishonest here. I once again quote your own words: “Every religious believer, except for cave-dwelling fundies like the Taliban, embrace Scientism (Scientific Naturalism) along with whatever religious faith they have. Viewed this way, Scientism may be the world’s largest belief system.”

      “I think you should postpone all your writing until you solve Alston’s religious diversity problem. You may have many sound arguments for theism in general, but that doesn’t get you to ‘Jesus is Lord’. And all of them can be used to defend absolutely any worldview, including Scientism.”

      Actually, the cosmological argument is one obvious example of where you are completely wrong here. It wouldn’t back up scientism as you’ve defined it (i.e. wedded to naturalism), for it implies a cause to the universe that is not, itself, caused. Furthermore, regarding the problem of religious diversity, it’s not a topic I focus on in this blog. Your red herring does nothing to the point of this–or any of my other–posts. If I do choose to address this problem at some future point, I would focus on the case for the resurrection as the linchpin to this problem, not to mention Alston’s own assertions that the reason religious experience can be so diverse is because it is of such a different nature than our own everyday lives. But again, this is not the issue I’m addressing in this or other posts. I’m confused as to why you continue to bring it up because it is such a non sequitur.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 24, 2010, 3:21 PM
  5. >I charge that you are being intentionally dishonest here.

    Cool down, partner. We’re just jawin’.

    I often withdraw, clarify or outright abandon my statements. This is a case where I withdrew to a weaker position than initially stated. It’s a part of normal discourse. I don’t consider admitting past errors to be dishonest. I doubt that you do, either. We gain nothing by holding each other to past statements which have been updated in the meantime. I’m learning by talking with you. Please try to be gracious when I concede a point.

    My whole trip is that “Christian” apologetics is usually “Supernatural” apologetics. I like speaking with guys like you because it makes me refine my thinking. But readers should notice that your arguments are not reasons to believe in the Resurrection, Yahweh or Jesus in particular. Rather, they are arguments that supernatural phenomena shouldn’t be excluded a priori. That’s a good point and how it is resolved depends on one’s values; in particular, whether you are conservative or liberal in what you will consider knowledge.

    But even for liberal thinkers who can accept supernaturalism, your arguments don’t move them closer to Christian beliefs. In fact, you support pantheons of competing gods, plus all the possible cosmologies that could be imagined by human brains. You actually drag Christianity down; down to the same level as all other systems, where, under your view, science resides now, too.

    I expect that this isn’t what you want for Christianity or for Science.

    Posted by Don Severs | July 24, 2010, 4:55 PM
    • Actually, the ontological argument specifically excludes pantheism and polytheism, so my arguments point, at the least, towards theism.

      Fair enough on your conceded points… except I must dispute the fact that you continue to use “science” as if it were a worldview. Define your usage of science in this sentence: “You actually drag Christianity down; down to the same level as all other systems, where, under your view, science resides now, too.”

      For, despite your implication, I do not devalue science. I simply don’t value the conjunct of naturalism with science.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 24, 2010, 5:38 PM
  6. The problem here belongs to PN, not MN. Dilley is wrong that MN entails ruling out any evidence in favor of competing hypotheses. It’s easy to claim this, thereby reinforcing the notion of secular bias within the sciences, because there is – to date – no indication that there are equivalent competing hypotheses.

    Part of the problem here is that there is no cohesive definition of what to look for. Every theist has a different personal definition of what God is or consists of, and no one seems willing to pony up and tell scientists what they should be looking for. Instead, many seem content to throw dung at theories they don’t like, or at science in general as a biased enterprise.

    If a cohesive, consistent hypothesis (i.e., consistent with what we already know about how the universe operates) were put forward by some enterprising and clever theists that actually amounted to a “competing hypothesis,” then perhaps scientists practicing MN would sit up and take notice. That has yet to happen, so complaining about the biases inherent to all humans but ascribing egregious secularism to those who practice MN simply because you don’t have anything worthwhile to offer back [edited for content–refrain from insults/flaming/disgusting comments/etc.].

    Posted by J.C. Samuelson | July 25, 2010, 7:14 AM
    • I appreciate your comment, but it is misguided, because MN does indeed rule out a priori any propose competing hypothesis, by definition. Again, MN is, broadly, the position that one should never appeal to a supernatural explanation. This means that even if the theist brought a compelling competing hypothesis to the table, it could not be considered, by definition. That’s just what science is, according to MN.

      Therefore, it seems that your comment missed the thrust of Dilley’s argument. While you may complain about the inability of the theist to produce any compelling competing hypotheses (the ID movement of recent years would seem to prove you wrong), it doesn’t matter what evidence the theist has, because it is impossible for it to be considered. The theist can’t even “get started”, if you will, if MN is assumed within science. So yes, the problem belongs to MN.

      Also, I edited your comment for content. In the future please avoid inflammatory and/or otherwise inappropriate remarks.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 25, 2010, 7:49 AM
  7. JW –

    I believe you missed a key point, which, I admit, was not stated explicitly in my complaint. It is this:

    “Supernatural” has no adequate definition in terms amenable to empirical examination. One could argue that “natural” isn’t sufficiently defined either, but at least “natural” has the virtue of being subject to intersubjective observation. Supernaturalism (i.e., theism) does not have even that.

    To the extent that MN rules out competing hypotheses, it does so by requiring hypotheses to be measured, quantified and studied methodically. In other words, empirically and in reference to a comprehensible reality. So, I suppose you could say it does a priori rules out competing hypotheses. Well, at least those that don’t think they need to meet basic rigor.

    Once again, if there is a hypothesis of theism that is consistent with these very basic (but rigorous) requirements, go for it; PNs might object, MNs won’t (or shouldn’t). Otherwise, theistic blustering about secularism in science is so much sound and fury, signifying nothing.

    But I do understand it makes for an excellent victimhood/martyr model for theism by which to perpetuate the idea that theism is under constant and pernicious threat from “devilish” science. Politics and public relations works well with a clearly defined opponent. Poor theists who “can’t even ‘get started'” are those who seem unable (or unwilling) to actually meet basic levels of rigor. Other theists – Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, Georges Lemaître, Isaac Newton, Theodosius Dobzhansky, the list goes on – seem to have, well, an easier time of it.

    The ID movement has produced … what? No really, what has it produced other than a popular drive toward including Bronze age myth in the science classroom?

    [Edit–Again, insults have no place here, you’ve been warned twice.]

    Posted by J.C. Samuelson | July 25, 2010, 12:28 PM
    • The problem with your strand of reasoning is that you have once again ignored the problem. It isn’t that theistic hypotheses cannot be tested empirically or “in reference to a comprehensible reality” (unless, of course, one begs the question against the hypotheses by ruling that any form of supernaturalism is incomprehensible to begin with–which is the problem), it is simply that MN cannot even comment on these hypotheses. Thus, I believe your comment is completely invalidated.

      As for ID, I believe Fred Hoyle, Stephen Meyer, Dembski, and others have shown that ID is at least worthy of consideration in science. The problem is, again, that MN simply doesn’t allow for a theory like ID to even be considered. It doesn’t matter if ID is a “Bronze age myth” (caricatures of opposing views are another problem in your comments so far), MN doesn’t even have a way to go about demonstrating that ID is wrong.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 25, 2010, 12:42 PM
      • Wow, J.W. Just wow. You took what I said as an insult? Why don’t you let other commenters weigh in on that? There are a lot of people – theists and non-theists – who waste their intellectual talents on scientific and philosophical dead ends. This isn’t controversial. It’s empirical fact. Do you disagree?

        And now you’re talking about NOMA as if theism’s claims about reality should be treated as equal without having to meet the rigor demanded under MN. In other words, it appears you want theism to have its cake and eat it too. It would be interesting to see a defense of that model.

        By the way, please look up the definition of “myth.” According to Webster (assuming they’re not too risque) a myth is “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.” Given the origins of the Judeo-Christian creation story are (according to tradition) ca. 1400-1300 BC, squarely in the midst of the Bronze age, what I wrote was apropos.

        But honestly, I think we’re done here. I don’t do well when I’m required to walk on eggshells.

        Posted by J.C. Samuelson | July 25, 2010, 4:02 PM
      • First, taking the stance of non-overlapping magisteria requires some kind of justification. Second, I’m not sure how, but the very point of everything I’ve said has seemingly been missed. It’s not a question of whether other theories should be considered equal “under MN”, it’s that other theories cannot exist under MN.

        Also, you’ve demonstrated that despite your apparent knowledge of everything ID has produced–I quote, “The ID movement has produced … what? No really, what has it produced other than a popular drive toward including Bronze age myth in the science classroom?”–you seem to have missed that the ID movement is not associated with any particular religion, though it is admittedly biased towards theism via parsimony (cf. Swinburne, The Existence of God for some reasons theism is a simple hypothesis). I suggest this is again a caricature of the ID movement.

        And as far as “walking on eggshells” goes. I reserve the right to edit out objectional content. I believe you already know what I am referring to. Philosophical discussion and shock value do not walk together.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 25, 2010, 10:25 PM
  8. J.W.

    As for whether other theories can or cannot exist under MN, it seems pretty clear that a better understanding of MN is in order. Theism as a worldview is not excluded under MN, and has never been, except by certain individuals with axes to grind. I suspect you would happily claim the many contributions of theists to science, including it’s method (which is all MN really describes), when celebrating how wonderful theism is, but then turn around and claim that theists can’t get anywhere because of rampant secularist bias when it’s time to lament the dearth of creationist “research” that gets circulated.

    With regard to ID, the “father” of the ID movement, Philip E. Johnson, seems to hold a different opinion from yours. Reading the foreword to Creation, Evolution, & Modern Science, he writes:

    “The Intelligent Design movement starts with the recognition that “In the beginning was the Word,” and “In the beginning God created.” Establishing that point isn’t enough, but it is absolutely essential to the rest of the gospel message.”

    A distinctly Christian message, no? So you’ll forgive me if I let ID theorists speak for themselves. The “caricature” – if that’s what it is – is of their own making.

    But as I said, we’re done. I’m not going to be posting again.

    Posted by J.C. Samuelson | July 26, 2010, 5:21 AM
    • “As for whether other theories can or cannot exist under MN, it seems pretty clear that a better understanding of MN is in order. Theism as a worldview is not excluded under MN, and has never been, except by certain individuals with axes to grind”

      You suggest I need a better understanding, but I have already pointed out that MN specifically excludes any reference to the supernatural within science. Unless you want to assert that somehow this doesn’t exclude theism as a theory (not a worldview, but as a hypothesis or theory–note that I never made the claim that it excluded theism as a worldview, just that it excludes the confirmation or disconfirmation of theism from science), then clearly, MN does exclude theism.

      Your quote from Philip Johnson clearly does demonstrate that the ID movement has been often wedded with Christianity. Philip Johnson, in your quote, perhaps believes it proves too much, however. Michael Behe wrote, in The Edge of Evolution that ID doesn’t necessarily point to a theistic God and to reach a theistic conclusion, “nonscientific arguments” are needed. All ID points to, as far as Behe is concerned is a “purposeful designer” (229).

      William Dembski writes, in Intelligent Design that, contra creationism, ID doesn’t have “prior religious commitments” and it “does not depend on a Biblical account of creation” (247). Anyone looking at my “Life Dialogue” series of posts would note that I think it is important with any view (creationism, ID, theistic evolutionism) that it can be reconciled with the Biblical account, but that doesn’t meant that ID itself is specifically doing this.

      Stephen Meyer writes, in Signature in the Cell, that the theistic implications of ID are limited to just that, implications, and that “If intelligent design is true, it follows that a designing intelligence with some of the attributes typically associated with God acted to bring the first living cells into existence” (443, emphasis his).

      So clearly we can’t stop with just one example and argue that this means that ID is specifically Christian. There are others, as I have demonstrated, who do not think this is the case, and people like Behe in particular argue for fairly weak claims for ID (not as in evidentially weak, but as in he doesn’t necessarily think it points to God, just a “designer”). One quote from the foreword to one book which specifically is meant to be written for Christians who may not have explored the issue (and thus it seems at least partially necessary to provide a reassurance for those who are unsure of the context) does not an argument make. In my reading from ID theorists, I find consistently that while there may be “theistic implications” (borrowing from Meyer), it isn’t a necessarily theistic view.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 26, 2010, 8:34 AM

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