Re: [asa] TE The Future

From: Schwarzwald <>
Date: Thu May 21 2009 - 07:18:44 EDT

Heya Gregory,

A few things, just as an aside.

"Methodological agnosticism" is a term I thought up more or less on the
spot. I think it's better than "methodological naturalism", but not by much.
Methodological pragmatism comes closer to capturing science's necessary
scope and limits in my view, but frankly I think what's important here is to
realize what methodological naturalism implies, and why (as I feel with
greater and greater certainty) the term is a drastic mistake. As I said
before, this is a pretty recent view for me - and part of why I previously
thought MN was a tremendously important rule was due to not thinking through
what 'naturalism' means philosophically, science's actual limits and scope,
and the typical lazy mental summary of MN as 'Not just saying 'God did it'
and writing off all scientific questions as mysteries or the work of God'.
Vocabulary is powerful.

You ask 'must science be naturalistic'? My response is: Just what IS
naturalism nowadays? Because there are indications that no one really knows,
naturalists included. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

*"The term ‘naturalism’ has no very precise meaning in contemporary
philosophy. Its current usage derives from debates in America in the first
half of the last century. The self-proclaimed ‘naturalists’ from that period
included John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook and Roy Wood Sellars. These
philosophers aimed to ally philosophy more closely with science. They urged
that reality is exhausted by nature, containing nothing ‘supernatural’, and
that the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of
reality, including the ‘human spirit’ (Krikorian 1944, Kim 2003).

* So understood, ‘naturalism’ is not a particularly informative term as
applied to contemporary philosophers. The great majority of contemporary
philosophers would happily accept naturalism as just characterized—that is,
they would both reject ‘supernatural’ entities, and allow that science is a
possible route (if not necessarily the only one) to important truths about
the ‘human spirit’.*

* Even so, this entry will not aim to pin down any more informative
definition of ‘naturalism’. It would be fruitless to try to adjudicate some
official way of understanding the term. Different contemporary philosophers
interpret ‘naturalism’ differently. This disagreement about usage is no
accident. For better or worse, ‘naturalism’ is widely viewed as a positive
term in philosophical circles—few active philosophers nowadays are happy to
announce themselves as
] This inevitably leads to a divergence in understanding the requirements of
‘naturalism’. Those philosophers with relatively weak naturalist commitments
are inclined to understand ‘naturalism’ in a unrestrictive way, in order not
to disqualify themselves as ‘naturalists’, while those who uphold stronger
naturalist doctrines are happy to set the bar for ‘naturalism’

The entry goes on to explicitly avoid defining naturalism, but give a
general description of typical "naturalist" commitments. The one commitment
they highlight as 'pretty common' is physicalism. Unfortunately, just what
comprises "physicalism" is itself vague (Hempel's dilemma, panpsychism
issues, etc) - and even that commitment is not strong (David Chalmers claims
he's a naturalist, despite rejecting physicalism outright - and I don't
recall anyone, even Dennett, questioning this. It's almost as if the only
real defining point for a naturalist is atheism. Could it be? And either
way, how do we define 'supernatural' if 'natural/naturalism' has become so

So (Yes, I know you didn't ask me - but I hope the response is appreciated)
I don't think science must be naturalistic. In fact, I think science is in
no position to rule on metaphysical / "worldview" questions. Science
searches for mechanisms by which to understand and predict phenomena within
a limited scope. Even historical investigations of nature (evolution,
cosmology, etc) don't commit a person to naturalism. 'This "physical" event
took place' does not prove or disprove the intervention of an agent or
supernatural cause.

That said, I also don't think one should rush to dispense with the MN term.
Not because I think it's a great term (not at all - not anymore), but
because it's possible/likely to confuse the issue further - and avoiding
confusion is the main reason to reject MN. Better to start talking about MN,
pointing out the flaws in what the term communicates, how it fails to
capture what goes on in science. A better phrase for the limits of science
is important, but removing misunderstanding and confusion is paramount.

> Secondly, Ted, your view of naturalism in contrast with natural
> science seems fuzzy. You say, "If Johnson is right, that accepting MN really
> commits one to accepting atheism, then very smart and very honest Christians
> like those identified here should not exist." This is suspect for a good
> detective.
> If MN really equates with 'methodological atheism' (which some people
> have contended here, even those not entirely in agreement with Johnson's
> 'wedge strategy') or 'methodological agnosticism', which you yourself have
> agreed with as a suitable definition, Ted, then the honest Christians you
> mention simply wouldn't be 'natural scientists.' The problem is not that
> they can't be Christians, it is that they must divorce their beliefs when
> they operate in natural sciences due to this restrictive methodology. And
> this is why your enemies love it when you embrace the philosophical
> assumption called MN!
> “I very much like Schwarzwald's suggestion, namely that 'methodological
> agnosticism' is a better term for the particular attitude previously called
> 'methodological naturalism.' ... But I'll stick with MN.” - Ted Davis
> (Btw, I await your response to my response to your view here:
> I've yet to hear a good distinction on the ASA list between 'natural
> science' and 'naturalism,' though I've asked for it or pointed out
> its importance several times. Is it possible for a 'natural scientist' to
> *not* be a 'naturalist'? Natural scientists have 'methods,' to be sure. But
> are those 'methods' necessarily based on a worldview that says 'nature is
> all there is,' even if only according to 'natural science'?
> What I find missing in your approach Ted, is any attempt to balance the
> Academy by admitting 1) that 'natural science' is not the only type of
> 'science,' and 2) that 'other' sciences have a legitimate contribution to
> make in deciding what 'naturalism' actually means, and 3) if 'scientific'
> methods are only those that are allowed to deal with 'natural things.'
> Must 'science' be 'naturalistic'?
> By opening yourself up to a broader view of the academy, you'll live up to
> the Mission of ASA that invites historians, anthropologists, psychologists
> and other non-naturalistic scholars, without 'requiring' them to adopt MN as
> if that were what 'doing science' is or ever could be *all* about.
> Correcting claims of distortion,
> Gregory
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Received on Thu May 21 07:19:25 2009

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