RE: methodological naturalism (hereafter MN) (was Read what I said again (was "Stephen:...))

John E. Rylander (
Thu, 11 Jun 1998 19:26:16 -0500

Thanks for getting back to me, Stephen.

> This `Johnson is a lawyer therefore he is wrong' argument is just special
> pleading. Johnson is not just a lawyer. He is a Senior Professor of Law at
> a major American University. His specialty is "analyzing the logic of
> arguments":

As I mentioned, that wasn't my argument. Rather, I pointed out that lawyers
are trained to use logic primarily to -win arguments- rather than get to the
truth. This fact certainly doesn't imply that they're -unable- to get to
the truth, or that "he is wrong".

> >SJ>First, the claim that MN is true because it "works" is really
> pragmatism..
> >>But pragmatism makes no claims to be truth. Truth *is* what works in
> >>pragmatism...
> JR>(a) One doesn't need to be a philosophical pragmatist or
> accept a pragmatic
> >theory of truth in order to note that science is a highly pragmatic
> >discipline. This is one of the important differences between science and
> >classical (correspondence-truth-oriented) philosophy. I agree that this
> >implies a potential (and obviously historically actual in numerous big
> >cases)serious difference between science and truth, especially
> when it comes
> >to foundations, but is that big news?
> Burgy was saying (in effect) that MN (ie. Methodological
> Naturalism) is true because
> it works. I was pointing out that "it works" is based on a
> philosophy called pragmatism
> which in the end denies truth. That MN works in many cases does
> not establish that
> it is true.

Given (as I take it we've agreed?) that MN is a -pragmatic claim-, what
exactly do you mean by the phrase "it is true"? Wouldn't it be better to
say, "it is useful"? or at least "it is pragmatically true"?

> >SJ>Second, this is too grandiose a claim. MN works well in the ongoing
> >>operations of the universe, but only because of TR, ie. because
> there is a
> >>God ruling the universe by natural laws, MN has no explanation *why* MN
> >>works. TR has an explanation why MN works (in some spheres and not in
> >>others)..
> JR>(b) Several replies: (1) Your TR claim is merely an assertion,
> especially
> >if "TR" is meant to be incompatible with theistic evolution or other
> >non-Johnsonian Christian scientific outlooks. But it doesn't seem that
> >you're here using it the way Johnson does, since your explication of TR
> >("ie. because there is a God ruling the universe by natural laws") is
> >completely compatible with theistic evolution and a thorough-going MN. So
> >if you mean it in Johnson's sense, it's mere assertion; if not, then it
> >doesn't count against MN. Which is it?
> In the time-honoured tradition of this list, you are starting to
> confuse things by
> bringing in another variable, TE. Now we have MN, TR and TE! A
> guarantee of
> confusion!

I've always been a fan of tradition. :^> But seriously, I don't see how
mentioning TE (theistic evolution) confuses things at all. But your
argument that it does may be tied in with your following claims:

> Neither Johnson nor I claim that TR "is incompatible with
> theistic evolution". Johnson's
> point is that MN is "is incompatible with theistic evolution"
> because if carried out
> consistently (eg. origins, Christianity) it would become
> Metaphysical Naturalism and
> deny *any* theistic worldview. It is precsiely MN that was used
> by the 19th century
> German `higher critics' like Bultmann who denied the supernatural
> as a matter of
> methodology and ended up with a Jesus who was just a man who did
> not really
> perform any miracles and who did not rise from the dead..

Johnson doesn't claim TR is incompatible with theistic evolution? Hmmm --
that's good to know.

Now what do you mean by "carried out consistently" here? You mean expanded
beyond natural science even into theology?? Three points to remember: (1)
Again, MN is a pragmatic scientific principle, not a deep philosophical
principle (except to a metaphysical naturalist, perhaps), adopted roughly
for the reasons I spelled out in my prior post. (I'm tempted to add
"Therefore:") (2) No one here is talking about using MN "consistently" IF,
repeat IF by that you mean using it in all areas of thought (metaphysics of
creation, theology, ...).

If it is indeed Johnson's point that MN is incompatible with theistic
evolution, I think he's trying to be too clever by about 2/3, since it
clearly isn't when "MN" is defined by those who advocate it. (It's a free
country -- you or Johnson can come up with your own stipulative definition,
but when deriving contradictions therefrom, you shouldn't claim to be
refuting "MN" is the typical sense of the term.)

> JR>(2) MN doesn't claim to explain itself, so how is the fact that
> >it -doesn't- do what it -doesn't claim- to do a criticism of it? Do you
> >(apparently) think this is an argument against MN? If so, how, exactly??
> You have critcised it for me! My point was that MN is a subset of
> TR, which
> can explain why MN works within limits..

I guess I agree with what you're saying here (on your defn of "TR", there
being a God who rules over nature), but I still don't see at all how this is
a criticism of MN.

If TR is completely compatible with MN and theistic evolution (I thought
Johnson disagreed, but I'll take your word for it -- I haven't read him in a
while), then why does Johnson attack those who believe in theistic evolution
as "theistic naturalists", since they clearly accept "TR" as -you- defined
it on his behalf??

And if they're completely compatible, why exactly are you attacking MN?
Wasn't your rejection of that what got the whole thread going?

> TR>(3) There are any number of philosophical theories that could
> explain why
> >MN would work in some cases and not work in others (on the
> assumption that I
> >share that it doesn't work in describing all of reality, and possibly not
> >even all of reality that's covered by science [I say possibly
> here, you say
> >definitely, I take it, though that too seems like just an
> assertion]), not
> >just Johnson's TR. Also, there's no proof yet, and the evidence is still
> >suggestive (e.g., Behe) but tentative and not yet compelling,
> that MN breaks
> >down in origin of life/design science. (REMEMBER: not having an
> answer yet
> >isn't the same as a breakdown. I agree on consciousness, but no non-MN
> >alternative currently shows more scientific/empirical promise -- see (a)
> >above.)
> If you claim that MN doesn't work now but will in the future,
> then: a) this negates
> Burgy's claim that "MN works"

I don't claim that wrt science. MN clearly does -work- in science, far
better than any known alternative, at least if one thinks modern science has
accomplished much. -In principle-, every unsolved problem in science (is
that what you interpret as MN not working?) -could- be an opportunity for a
new methodological principle (e.g., "expect a miracle!" ;^> ), but in
practice no one does that, because every time that's been tried before, it's
failed. ("Science" more broadly construed has only accepted MN for the last
couple hundred years -- before then it was non-MN in many cases, but that
wasn't very successful.) MN is extremely strongly supported on inductively
pragmatic grounds.

HUGE POINT: Therefore, MN will be displaced only when something
pragmatically better comes along. All non-MN proponents need to do is
deliver superior empirical results and they'll get a serious hearing.
Unfortunately, that isn't happening at all yet. Maybe someday it will.
It'd be really cool, I think, if it did -- but it hasn't, and there are
no -compelling- indications that it will. (Behe, e.g., is -suggestive-,
not -compelling-.)

and b) it becomes Metaphysical
> Naturalism, which
> confirms Johnson's main point, that MN is only true if
> Metaphysical Naturalism is
> true..

This is a non-sequitur. I could easily assert that MN doesn't work now, but
that it will in the future (let's leave the weirdness of the claim aside),
and that in no way converts MN to metaphysical N.

Also, I thought you were saying that MN and theistic evolution (which arises
due to theists pragmatically accepting MN) were compatible with "TR" as you
and Johnson defined it? Now you're back to saying MN is true only if
metaphysical naturalism is true??

I think you need to refine just what you mean by "TR", "MN", metaphysical N,
and "TE". I suspect there's some definitional slippage here.

> >SJ>Third, MN fails dismally in the area of *origins*. MN cannot
> explain the
> >>origin of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of
> life's designs,
> >>the origin of human consciousness...
> JR>(c) This is, of course, the big issue. Let's break it into two
> questions
> >(and leave out the origin of the universe, which most though
> clearly not all
> >will agree is beyond science):
> Which just concedes the point! If MN can't even explain the origin of the
> universe, but TR can, then TR is the more inclusive theory and MN its
> subset..

Stephen, this is just saying that the origin of the big bang is, right now
at any rate, more of a philosophical issue than a scientific one. I
certainly agree that "TR" is, on your given definition (even if I'm not sure
you always use it that way, since on that defn it's fully compatible with MN
and TE), broader than MN, for the reason that philosophy is broader than

If your whole point is that philosophy (e.g., TR) is broader than science
(e.g., MN), then of course I'll concede your main point, as will every
Christian MN advocate.

I thought that your point was that MN is somehow inappropriate for the
Christian to pragmatically commit to in science. (And I emphasize
again, -pragmatically-. This could change, in principle. -Only- superior
results will change it in fact. THAT is what MN opponents, if you are one,
should be focussing on!)

> JR> (1) Are current MN answers to the origin of
> >life and life's designs compelling, or compelling to those who are not
> >metaphysical naturalists? The consensus here would be no, I'd wager..
> Again this confirms my point that MN has no answers to the orign
> of life either..

Remember, Stephen, we're talking empirical science here, not philosophy.
Even though regular science has only informed speculation here, this
doesn't -automatically- open the door wide for non-MN science. What would??
What, e.g., ID advocates need to deliver are -unambiguously better
predictions- than the ones offered by MN alternatives if they hope to
succeed. Right now they don't. Given more time and effort, maybe they
will. Again, it'd be really cool if they did! But they certainly haven't
yet, so far as I know.

> JR>But this is no significant evidence -yet- for what many
> Johnsonians seem to
> >suggest, which is a positive answer to (2) Are there any
> >scientifically/empirically superior NON-MN approaches to these
> issues? The
> >consensus here, even generally amongst scientists who are serious
> >Christians, is "no" as well..
> I have read this several times and can't understand it (apart
> from admitting
> that MN has no answers to the orign of life either). Perhaps you can
> make it plainer?

Sorry for the lack of clarity. My time is limited, so while I try to be
very precise, I often save time by not making it more -con-cise. :^<

All I meant by this is the point that advocates of non-MN science need to do
EXACTLY ONE THING to -successfully- push their agenda: deliver CLEARLY
BETTER -EMPIRICAL- RESULTS than their MN competitors. The obvious place for
them to look is where traditional science doesn't have solid theories (e.g.,
abiogenesis, as you noted), but looking doesn't mean finding.
They're -working on- theories they claim will do the job, but they don't
yet -have- them.

> BTW I don't care for your pejorative epithet "Johnsonians."

I didn't mean that at all pejoratively. But I won't tell him you took it
that way. ;^> (I mean, really: is "Newtonian" an insult? "Darwinian"?
"Kuhnian"? etc. etc.?)

> JR>(d) Because of the negative answer to (c2), and the time
> tested reality of
> >the pragmatic aspect of science (a), ID folks and Johnsonians
> will only get
> >serious respect in the scientific community by making the answer
> to (2) YES!
> >I emphasize: -this is not a matter of philosophical argument
> nearly so much
> >as it is one of scientific results-, of which ID theory
> currently has about
> >none..
> I've got news for you. Johnson already *has* "serious respect in
> the scientific
> community":

Well, let me put it this way: if they want -more- serious respect, they'll
need to deliver not philosophical lectures but results. (And let me say,
I'm a philosopher by training. I think philosophy is extremely important.
But it's not the same as good science.)

> "In his 1992 book Dreams of a Final Theory, Steven described me
> as currently
> "the most respectable academic critic of evolution." (Weinberg
> S., "Dreams of
> a Final Theory", 1992, pp247-49, in Johnson P.E., "Darwin on
> Trial," 1993,
> p157)..
> I correspond with leading Intelligent Design theorists and the
> news is that
> Intelligent Design is gaining ground in universities across USA
> and Canada, both among students and faculty members (including
> scientists).

I'm genuinely excited to hear that, especially wrt faculty. But again, even
this isn't even close to the same thing as getting scientific, empirical

> JR>If ID theory starts showing results, then it may be able
> successfully to
> >argue against MN on pragmatic grounds -- it's success there will be
> >proportional to its empirical success. Until then, because science seeks
> >truth via theories that show the best available empirical
> results, ID theory
> >will be more a philosophical research program than a scientific
> one. (Still
> >perhaps very worthwhile, but not science per se.)
> That is just a question-begging definition of "science". If
> Intelligent Design
> really happened then it is not outside of "science" to study it, any more
> than intelliegnt design is outside of sciences like archaeology or SETI..

You seem to be slipping into scientism here. If it's real, it's science.
This is, I believe, a very serious intellectual error. [more later.]

> >>JWB>And I have seen no indication the Johnson's TR (Theological
> >> >Realism) works, at least not in a scientific sense...
> >SJ>See above. You can't even get the name right - it is
> *Theistic* Realism!
> >>That does not inspire confidence in your understanding of TR...
> >
> >(e) Is this serious? Is it meant to be?
> Yes. If Burgy doesn't even get the name of TR right, then it is indicative
> that he does not understand what TR is..

I disagree, but let's move on. [I just read Mike Hardie's post, and think
his comments about this are good ones.]

> >SJ>Also, if you claim to be a theist who believes that God
> exists, you have a
> >>basic problem of explaining why assuming there is no God is the key to
> >>understanding reality:
> JR>(f) You seem to be adopting a Johnsonian variant of Scientism here
> >(Scientism combined with Johnsonian science), confusing science
> with reason
> >generally, and hence confusing scientific MN with philosophical MN. The
> >latter would be terrible, but no Christian here is promoting that. (Maybe
> >Johnson makes this confusion too -- it sure sounds like it -sometimes-
> >anyway. But again, he's not always very precise, it seems to me,
> even when
> >he's brilliantly eloquent.)
> That you don't even adress the problem but try to trail a red
> herring, confirms my
> point that exponents of MN "have a basic problem of explaining
> why assuming
> there is no God is the key to understanding reality."

Actually, I did deal with the issue, but indirectly. I certainly didn't
intend to evade it. It's more explicit here:

Why did I reply with "You seem to be adopting a Johnsonian variant of
Scientism here"??

As a preface, "scientism" or "Scientism" (depends on how much one worships
science :^> ) refers to the idea that only science gives us truth, or in its
weaker and less monstrously implausible forms, that only (and perhaps
always) science gives us intellectual justification for beliefs. (Still
monstrously implausible, but less so. :^> ) In the strong or hard form,
since only science gives us truth, if it's a truth we can discover, it's
going to come through science. In the weak or soft form, since only science
justifies belief, if it's rational it's scientific, and perhaps vice versa.

Now remembering "scientism", let's look at what you said: "... you have a
basic problem of explaining why assuming there is no God is the key to
understanding reality."

Two serious problems with this assertion:
(1) MN's don't literally "assume there is no God", unless they're also
metaphysical naturalists. I'm being a bit pedantic here, but it's an
important piece of pedantry when we're trying to speak precisely. It might
be better to say, e.g., that MN advocates "don't incorporate supernatural
intervention in their scientific theories". I agree that it's hard to
phrase at once precisely and briefly.
(2) The main concern: if you really think science is "THE key to
understanding reality" [my emphasis] rather than "A key....", then you're
right in the neighborhood of scientism.

Now this may be the key to Johnson's concerns: IF he is unwittingly buying
into scientism, AND he firmly believes that God is real and indeed
Christianity is true, THEN he must try to build the reality of God and the
truth of Christianity into science. Christian Scientism. :^>

Most Christian scientists and philosophers don't buy into scientism -at
all-, and so the idea that God's supernatural intervention isn't a part of
their scientific theories need not concern them, since that in no way
implies that God isn't real. Science does not exhaust reality. So God's
not being a part of a scientific theory doesn't mean God isn't real.

Does this explain why I said what I said?

> JR>(g) (1) If one sees science simply as studying the natural
> world, if one
> >agrees that God can't be scientifically/mathematically modeled (unlike
> >nature), and if one recognizes the strong pragmatic/results-oriented
> >element in science and sees MN's astonishing successes historically, then
> >one will appreciate MN..
> Who does not "appreciate MN"?

You tell me. If you don't have any objections to MN (which sometimes you
don't), that is, not incorporating supernatural events into scientific
theories (or something very much like that), then we don't have a

But when you said over time many things like "MN is only true if
Metaphysical Naturalism is true" I took you to be seriously criticizing MN.

> JR>(2) On the other hand, if one sees science scientistically (as
> >philosophy, covering all of reality and not just nature), if one
> thinks God
> >can be incorporated into mathematical/scientific models, and/or if one
> >thinks science is not pragmatic (who cares about results -- we
> just want the
> >philosophical truth!) and isn't impressed by the results of
> science so far,
> >then MN will not appeal. But each of these three (maybe four :^> ) theses
> >is -seriously- in error..
> >
> >(h) The only bridge between (1) and (2) is a positive answer to
> (c2) above..
> >Until ID folks can do that, they'll -scientifically- flounder, even if
> >(if...) they'll have very worthwhile philosophical success..
> We are discussing MN as philosophy, ie. thinking about science, not
> actually doing science.

MN as philosophy?

Let's clean up this language: MN applies to doing science, not to doing
philosophy generally, or even to doing philosophy of science.

> JR>To summarize, re-read (c) and (d). :^>
> >
> >Stephen, I have no idea how you'll react to this stuff. I meant
> none of it
> >as a personal attack, but I fear my attempts as precision will be lost in
> >the ensuing debate. If I could make one serious request: to try to bring
> >more precision into this debate, if you respond, could you respond to my
> >points precisely and by specific reference to what I'm saying? Ideally,
> >there'd be few quotes from books and such -- they often don't respond
> >directly or precisely to what is being discussed..
> I find it difficult not see the above as a "personal attack" of a
> sort (albeit
> comparatively mild) by your personal denigration of Phil Johnson and your
> use of the perjorative term "Johnsonian"..
> Steve

I don't think I did either, and I'm just at a complete loss to see how
"Johnsonian" is pejorative, but I guess there's room for disagreement even

Steve, thanks again for the calmly reasoned reply. If I could offer three
intellectual challenges:

(1) Try to work out what you mean by science (is it very different from
philosophy? does it have subject-matter limits? Is it pragmatic, or
strictly alethic [truth-oriented]/realistic?)

(2) More critically, try to find a way to precisely express your attitude
toward MN: (a) what you think it means, and (b) whether or not you accept
it. Neither one was at all clear to me.
Indeed, If I were at all an argumentative sort (like Glenn, say ;^> ), I'd
repeatedly accuse you of contradicting yourself (e.g., quoting, "My point
was that MN is a subset of TR", but also "MN is only true if Metaphysical
Naturalism is true"), but I think it was more a matter of shifting between
definitions of MN, so that instead of just having "MN" and accepting it or
rejecting it, you had in mind "good MN" and "bad MN" or something. Do you
see the -apparent even if not real- contradiction in your assertions? Could
you explain more precisely to me what you mean so as to remove the paradox?

(3) Please think hard about my claim that only superior (not perfect,
just -better-) empirical results from non-MN theories will end up
overturning the inductively, pragmatically justified MN, if anything does.
Now: -Do you agree with this?-

Thanks, Steve.