methodological naturalism (long)

Howard J. Van Till (
Fri, 27 Mar 1998 10:34:13 -0500

Having watched the recent exchanges on the topic of 'methodological
naturalism,' I have decided to break my lurking silence and make a few

1. As long as Phil Johnson (with fitting encouragement from Will Provine)
continues his choice to blur the distinction between: (a) 'methodological
naturalism' as natural science's strategy for theorizing about natural
phenomena, and (b) 'Metaphysical Naturalism' as a presupposition that
serves as the basis for a comprehensive and atheistic worldview, this
discussion is unlikely to be fruitful.

According to Phil, for instance, "By MN (by which Phil means
'methodological naturalsm') we know that natural selection has immense
creative power, sufficient to make cells and complex organs, even though no
one has ever seen this power demonstrated. By MN we know that there was a
universe of ancestors and transitional forms in the preCambrian rocks,
although they have mysteriously vanished. By MN Biblical scholars have
discovered that the Pentateuch was stitched together from various sources
(J, E, P, etc) and that the "historical Jesus" worked no miracles and was
deified by his followers. Finally, by MN we know that Scriptural passages
praising God give evidence only of the religious consciousness of whoever
wrote them."

But that entire paragraph is false and is nothing more than rhetorical
blather. We do not 'know' any of those things by MN! And to continue the
propagation of rhetoric like that does nothing but muddy the waters of what
otherwise could have been a fruitful discussion.

Given the misuse to which the term 'methodological naturalism' has been
subjected, I think we are best advised to drop it and develop a better
vocabulary that gets at the central issues more directly. So, let me try
another strategy. Some of the differences between my approach and Phil's
follow from my choice to shape my presentation not as an apologetic
reaction to Naturalism (the worldview) but as an expression of my
commitment to the Christian faith. I choose not to allow the opposition to
define either the key terms or the scoring system by which the exchange is
to be evaluated.

1. I use the term 'Creation' in place of 'Nature' because I wish to affirm
my commitment to the historic Judeo-Christan doctrine of creation, which
entails the belief that the universe in its entirety (all of reality that
is not God) has being only because the God who is presented in the
Judeo-Christian Scriptures has given it being and continues
moment-by-moment to sustain it in being. In other words, the Creation,
including every creaturely capability that contributes to its formational
economy, has being only as the consequence the Creator's act of giving it
being. If no Creator, then no Creation.

2. When I speak of the 'formational economy' of the Creation I have in mind
the list of all of the capabilities of matter and material systems for
self-organization and transformation--all of the creaturely capabilities
that have contributed to the formational history of the Creation. From this
perspective, every creaturely capability that contributes to the Creation's
formational economy must be seen as a 'gift of being' from the Creator. If
no Creator, then no creaturely capabilities of any kind.

3. The fundamental issue is not about scientific methodology (MN and all
that), but about the character of the Creation. One way to approach the
issue is to ask, Did God give the Creation the requisite creaturely
capabilities to satisfy what I will call the "Robust Formational Economy

When I speak of the "Robust Formational Economy Principle" I have in mind
the assumption (one that has relevance for scientific theorizing) that the
formational economy of the Creation is, by God's unfathomable creativity
and unlimited generosity, sufficiently robust to make possible the
actualization of all of the physical structures (atoms, stars, galaxies,
etc.) and all of the life forms that have ever existed. (This is what gives
the Creation what I have elsewhere called the quality of 'functional
integrity,' especially in regard to its formational history.)

In such a Creation (I call this the Fully-Gifted Creation Perspective)
there would be no gaps--no missing capabilities--in its formational economy
that would have to be bridged by form-imposing divine interventions in the
course of time as envisioned by the several versions of episodic
creationist scenarios for the historical manifestation of the God's
creative action.

4. By 'episodic creationist scenarios' I mean those constructed concepts or
chronicles of God's creative activity that place especial emphasis on
episodes of extraordinary divine action in which God from time to time is
presumed to have imposed some new form or structure on the basic material
of the Creation. Within this broad category we have young-earth special
creationism, old-earth special creationism., progressive creationism, and
what is now being called "intelligent design theory." These variant strains
of episodic creationism differ on such details as the timetable and the
character of each episode of form-imposing divine action, but they agree
that episodes of divine intervention (or some other acts of extra-natural
assembly by a sufficiently capable agent) were a necessary factor in the
formational history of the Creation. In other words, they agree in their
rejection of what I have called the "Robust Formational Economy Principle."

5. By "Naturalism" (upper case 'N') I mean the comprehensive worldview (as
articulated by Will Provine, for instance) founded on the metaphysical
presumption that Nature is all there is--the physical/material universe is
itself the ultimate reality. According to Naturalism the universe is not a
Creation that has been given being by a God who transcends it, but is a
self-existent entity that needs no transcendent Creator to give it being or
to sustain it in being. There is no Creator of whom creatures could be
aware, and hence no possibility of a Creator/creature relationship that
could serve as the source of meaning or of purpose.

6. I find the term 'methodological naturalism' completely useless because
it is loaded with misleading and malodorous rhetorical baggage. When used
by a proponent of Naturalism, its function is ordinarily to make a common
scientific strategy appear is if it were either supportive of, or
indistinguishable from, the comprehensive worldview of Naturalism. When
used by a proponent of episodic creationism, that same function is
ordinarily conceded to Naturalism--a state of affairs that is then taken to
be a call for Christians to craft some new form of science. Some episodic
creationists have proposed a 'creation science,' others a 'theistic
science.' still others something called 'intelligent design' theorizing.

Now, having proposed a new vocabulary, let's try it out by asking the
question, Who owns the Robust Formational Economy (RFE) Principle?

The popular rhetoric of the creation-evolution debate, whether of the
pro-evolution or anti-evolution variety, presumes that the RFE Principle
belongs exclusively to the worldview of Naturalism. Furthermore, vocal
Christian critics of evolution would likely add that the 'scientific
establishment' (whatever that term is intended to represent), since it
appears to accept RFE as a valid working principle, has sold out to this
anti-theistic worldview. Christian anti-evolution literature is frequently
punctuated with the accusation that contemporary science is thoroughly
committed to Naturalism. The preachers of Naturalism would, of course, like
very much for that to be true, but simply desiring something to be true
does not make it so. And the fact that preachers of Naturalism say it's
true doesn't mean that Christians must agree with that assertion.

Let me be candid. I think that the popular rhetoric on this question is
profoundly wrong, and that Christians and non-Christians alike are being
led down the road of misunderstanding by rhetoric that proceeds from a
fundamentally flawed concept regarding the ownership of the RFE Principle.

To gain a sense of the reasoning that leads me to this unpopular
conclusion, suppose that we were to begin with a commitment to the historic
Christian doctrine of creation--the starting point that I recommend--and to
proceed from that commitment to the evaluation of the RFE Principle and its
implications for scientific methodology.

As I stated earlier, all Christians agree that the entire universe, every
aspect of it, has being only because God, its Creator, has given it being.
That means, of course, that every creaturely capability that the Creation
possesses must be seen as a 'gift of being' from the Creator. Therefore,
from the standpoint of a commitment to the historic Christian doctrine of
creation, the formational economy of the universe is not something that has
any independent existence, nor does it contain any creaturely capabilities
that God did not choose to give it. Furthermore, if it is as remarkably
complete as the RFE Principle describes it, that would be recognized by a
Christian as none other than affirmative evidence for the unfathomable
creativity and unlimited generosity of the Creator.

For a Christian to discover that the RFE Principle is highly encouraged by
the empirical evidence would, it seems to me, provide the occasion, not for
the conclusion that Naturalism is therefore warranted, but rather that God
is to be praised for his creativity and generosity. Scientific theorizing
about the Creation's formational history would therefore proceed on the
assumption that the RFE Principle is true.

Suppose, on the other hand, that a person were to begin with a commitment
to the worldview of Naturalism--Nature is all there is. There is no
Creator; Nature is its own source of being. How does something--a universe,
say--come to exist in place of 'absolute nothing'? If P. W. Atkins'
rhetoric is taken to be representative, then Naturalism's answer is simply,
"chance," or, to employ his more colorful prose, "the haphazard,
unmotivated action" of nothingness. (This type of rhetoric can be found in
his brief book, _The Creation_.) Not very satisfying or convincing answers,
Mr. Atkins.

But there is far more that Naturalism must yet explain. Naturalism must
account for the existence not merely of a nondescript something in place of
nothing, but rather of a SOMETHING as remarkable as a universe that
contains us! In other words, Naturalism must accept the challenge of
explaining the existence of a universe that is equipped with a formational
economy sufficiently robust to account for the formation of the elements,
of space, of galaxies, of stars, of planets, of plants, of animals, and of
human beings. How does the "haphazard, unmotivated action" of nothingness
do that?

Some proponents of Naturalism have tried to take comfort in the 'anthropic
principle,' one form of which says that there is really no mystery that the
universe is as it is, and thus no cause to marvel at its robust formational
economy, because if it were not precisely as robust as it appears to be we
wouldn't even be here to ask the question. But, of course, this is no
answer to the original question. The anthropic principle may well give an
answer to the question, "Given that we do exist, what must be the character
of the universe of which we are a part?" But the anthropic principle is
utterly unable to tell us how we and this universe of which we are a part
come to have existence in place of non-existence. The bottom line is that
Naturalism can point to no source whatsoever for the existence of any
universe, certainly not one to which the RFE Principle applies.

So, who owns the RFE Principle? The preachers of Naturalism? Not a chance!
And the last thing that a Christian ought to do is to give in to their
claims that they do. As I see it, the historic Christian doctrine of
creation provides a far more substantial basis for this principle than
Naturalism could ever hope to provide. If the RFE Principle correctly
describes the way the universe is, how could anything less than the
Creator's unfathomable creativity and unlimited generosity account for it?

All of the familiar rhetoric of the creation/evolution debate that suggests
that Naturalism owns this principle is, I believe, as far off the mark of
truth as it could possibly be. I can easily see why the preachers of
Naturalism would love to have ownership of the Robust Formational Economy
Principle conceded to them and why they try their best to promote the claim
that they actually deserve it. But why, why, why do so many Christians let
them get by with such a transparent inversion of sound reasoning? Why allow
anyone to get by with the claim that the _more_ robust the formational
economy of the universe is, the _less_ it needs a Creator to give it being?

Howard Van Till