Re: Ontology determines epistemology (was Re: [asa] Re: Coyne vs Collins)

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Thu Apr 30 2009 - 18:04:13 EDT


I agree with your analysis entirely.

I was, however, putting the emphasis in a different place than you seem to
think that I was. My point was that Coyne begins from his metaphysics,
which *demands* pure naturalism, with no exceptions, and from that he
derives his epistemology. He unifies them by putting the metaphysics
(ontology) in the driver's seat.

A Christian who put orthodox Christian metaphysics in the driver's seat, and
derived his (or her) epistemology of nature from it (without deliberately
contriving that epistemology to make it friendly to modern science), would
not spontaneously come up with "methodological naturalism". A Christian,
basing his epistemology upon the Bible and traditional Church teaching,
would come up with something like: "Things generally seem to run in accord
with something akin to "laws", and they do this so often that we can treat
these "laws" as for most practical purposes unbreakable; however, there is
no reason why God has to sustain those laws all the time, and he may in fact
intervene to suspend or break them (in the case of healings or visions, for
example) even now, as he appears to have done, at least in some cases, in
Biblical times; further, there may have been a more ancient period of time
(the period of creation) when such laws were not in force, as he was giving
shape to the world and the life forms in it." That would be a Christian
epistemology regarding nature, but that is not what is usually meant by
"methodological naturalism" in the culture-war environment we are in.
Usually it means that we are pressured to acquiesce in the view that all
things originated wholly naturalistically, by means of the same natural
forces and processes that we observe today. Failure to give such
acquiescence exposes one to the charge of being "unscientific".

And the rub is, that precisely if chance and necessity are *not* capable of
producing all the life forms we see, or the special character of man, or
life itself, methodological naturalism (understood not as a useful practical
rule of thumb, but as an absolutely binding rule for all inquiry into the
causes of natural things) will *hide* that truth from us. So the question
is which is more important: following methodological naturalism wherever it
leads, at the risk of possibly missing some important truths about nature,
or leaving matters more open than that, in order not to rule out any
possibilties in advance. Christian theology suggests that the latter is the
wiser course. That does *not* rule out wholly naturalistic inquiries even
into questions of origins (God may have employed such means); but it does
take away the untouchable status that wholly naturalistic inquiries into
origins have in neo-Darwinian theory. Understandably, Coyne and Dawkins are
unwilling to live with such openness regarding origins questions. However,
there is no reason why Collins or Miller, given their theological
confessions, should find such openness problematic. There is no reason why
they should believe, a priori, that the naturalistic mechanisms thus far
proposed by neo-Darwinism are sufficient to explain the origin of life and
of species. There is no reason that they should not demand proof of the
power of chance and necessity to deliver such amazing results. And this
raises the question why they do not join the ID people in demanding such


----- Original Message -----
From: "Murray Hogg" <>
To: "ASA" <>
Sent: Thursday, April 30, 2009 5:03 PM
Subject: Ontology determines epistemology (was Re: [asa] Re: Coyne vs

> Cameron Wybrow wrote:
> > First, on methodological naturalism versus metaphysical naturalism. We
> > know that Eugenie Scott and many TEs make a big deal about the
> > distinction. But they do that largely to fend off attacks from both
> > sides. Eugenie uses it to fend off attacks that Darwinism implies
> > atheism. She wants to look professionally neutral on the subject of
> > religion. The TEs use it to fend off charges that Christians can't do
> > science because they will be using miracles to explain things all the
> > time. In sum, the whole discussion is politically charged. Why would
> > any philosopher or scientist, outside the constitutionally-charged
> > religion-in-the-schools atmosphere of the USA, want to make a
> > distinction between epistemology and ontology ("I'm methodologically
> > naturalist, but not metaphysically naturalist")? As if we should study
> > reality in one way, while knowing that it's really another? So that
> > we're supposed to study nature as if there's no God, or at least no God
> > who has any active part it, while believing in our heart of hearts that
> > God does have an active part in it? This is another example of modern
> > schizophrenia; the ancients did not think about life in such a bizarre
> > way. The ancient atomists, like Lucretius, made their epistemology
> > match their metaphysics. You don't find Lucretius arguing that we
> > should treat the world *as if* everything can be explained by atoms
> > falling through a void, while believing in his heart of hearts that God
> > is behind it all somehow. No; for Lucretius we should look only for
> > mechanical explanations for things, because that's all the universe is:
> > a dead mechanism of colliding atoms. Epistemology matches metaphysics.
> > And this is a sane attitude. (Not the atheism, but the unity of
> > epistemology and metaphysics.)
> Hi Cameron,
> I realize I owe you a response to one of your previous posts, but I wanted
> to jump in on the above.
> It's proper, let me say, to insist that "epistemology matches
> metaphysics." But the proper order of precedence is "ontology determines
> epistemology" and not the other way around.
> That is, epistemology is logically secondary to ontology - how we can know
> is determined by the nature of the object being investigated and not vice
> versa.
> Or, to put it less abstractly, what we want to assert is GIVEN a
> particular ontology/metaphysic THEN what sort of epistemology follows.
> What this means is that one cannot BEGIN with an epistemology and "work
> backwards" to assert that it DEMANDS a particular metaphysical/ontological
> point-of-view, as it may well be the case a given epistemological
> programme can be compatible with MULTIPLE metaphysical/ontological
> points-of-view. To do so, to argue that "you are a methodological
> naturalist, therefore you must consistently be a metaphysical naturalist"
> is technically to commit the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent
> ("if A therefore B, B, therefore A")
> And this, of course, is the rub with Methodological Naturalism: it is
> consistent with an ontology in which the natural order is "all there was,
> is and ever will be" (metaphysical naturalism) or an ontology in which God
> creates a natural order which functions in a regular, hence predictable,
> manner (metaphysical super-naturalism).
> On either view it is perfectly consistent to affirm methodological
> naturalism as a legitimate guiding principle in investigation of the
> natural order - whether the later is indeed "all there was, is, and ever
> will be" or whether it was divinely created to function in a regular,
> hence predictable, manner.
> To labour the point, both the following are logically correct;
> IF "Metaphysical Naturalism" THEN "Methodological Naturalism"
> "Metaphysical Naturalism" THEREFORE "Methodological Naturalism"
> IF "Creation functions in a regular, hence predictable, manner" THEN
> "Methodological Naturalism"
> "Creation functions in a regular, hence predictable, manner" THEREFORE
> "Methodological Naturalism"
> You may, of course, argue as to whether the Creation does, indeed,
> function in a regular, hence predictable manner - by which I don't mean
> you would suggest anything utterly silly like there is NO predictability,
> rather you may well question the extent to which God overrides the
> regular, hence predictable, manner of nature's function in specific
> circumstances - but you can't, logically, argue that accepting MN demands
> of the Christian scientist anything other than a commitment to a divinely
> ordained regularity in nature.
> Methodological naturalism, in short, most emphatically does NOT entail -
> or even lend the slightest credence to - metaphysical naturalism.
> Blessings,
> Murray
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Received on Thu Apr 30 18:05:13 2009

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