RE: methodological naturalism

Mike Hardie (
Tue, 30 Jun 1998 14:58:04 -0700

Pardon the lateness of my reply.

Also, I'm not going to respond to the last "destructive criticism" post.
I've made all the arguments I can really make on the subject. I think that
the mature and rational thing to do is avoid all the character reference
and concentrate *solely* on the issues.

>>What would it mean for Methodological Naturalism to be
>>"true", exactly? It's a methodology, not a metaphysical system.
> Disagree. MN seamlessly becomes "a metaphysical system", ie.
> metaphysical naturalism, when it is ceases to be a limitation on
> science and becomes a limitation on reality. This is most obvious
> when it is applied to origins and Christianity.

Well, but it *isn't* a limitation on reality. It's a methodology -- the
way to do science. Whether or not the conclusions of the MN approach
correspond to reality, or the entirety of reality, is where the separate
metaphysical question comes in.

>>>...Johnson's point is that MN...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.
>>But Methodological Naturalism would deny things like God
>>*only for the purposes of the methodology*, not in any general or
>>ultimate sense.
> If there really is a God, why deny Him "for the purposes of the
> methodology"? This makes sense only if there really is no God, ie. if
> metaphysical naturalism is true. To clam that there really is a God but
> the best way to study His creation is to assume there there really isn't
> a God is absurd.

I think it makes perfect sense when you consider that science is concerned
only with empirical data. God, even if one exists, is never going to be
empirically testable or verifiable. A scientist certainly can believe, as
a personal philosophy, that God is ultimately behind all the phenomena he
observes; he can certainly think to himself that nature manifests God's
design. But he cannot consider that *for the purposes of science*. Very
simply: the existence, nature, and workings of God are all inherently
metaphysical questions, and once we delve into metaphysics, we are
practicing philosophy rather than science. Science, for its part, deals
only with one very limited kind of inquiry: empirical/naturalistic.

> Do you really think that the God of the Bible is pleased with denying
> Him for *any* purpose? Jesus (who was God) said: "But whosoever
> shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father
> which is in heaven." (Mt 10:33).

But *scientists* do not necessarily deny God, the methodology does. That
is, scientists need not disbelieve in God, they must simply realize that
science is a context to which claims of religious truth are irrelevant.

>>Science does not, and *cannot*, address metaphysical claims, so
>>it has to eliminate any metaphysical questions (like the existence of
>>God) simply for its own purposes.
> The very claim that "Science does not, and *cannot*, address
> metaphysical claims" is itself a metaphysical claim!

No, it's an epistemological claim. I am talking about the nature of the
methodology, not the nature of reality.

> To eliminate any metaphysical questions (like the existence of God)"
> is to come down on the side of a "metaphysical question", ie. atheism,
> "the" *non-"existence of God"!

Not at all. Analogy: do you think that, say, the practice of effective
gardening hinges on whether or not the Trinity doctrine is correct?
Probably not. There is no sense in which the supposed consubstantiality of
three divine persons is going to directly affect whether to plant petunias
or azaleas. So, when you're out there gardening, it's unlikely that you're
factoring the doctrine of the Trinity into your gardening equations.
(Indeed, if you were, you'd have to employ some pretty twisted logic, and
would get some strange results!) Does this mean that you *deny* the
doctrine of the Trinity? Of course not. It just means that you recognize
that gardening is not a practice to which the Trinity is relevant.
Similarly, I think scientists realize that God, however important to them
personally, and however integral to their personal view of reality, simply
is not relevant to the practice of science.

>>This is not to say that science disbelieves in God, but merely
>>that God is a question science cannot address.
> Why not? Books on popular science are addressing the question of
> God all the time:

I would suggest that, when a science book starts addressing metaphysical
questions, it belies having crossed the line between science and
philosophy. (Granted, in some areas of science -- e.g., quantum physics --
that line may be pretty subtle in the first place!)

> "It was barely tenable as a philosophical position as long as the
> leading scientists believed, or pretended to believe, that science is a
> limited research activity which does not aspire to occupy the entire
> realm of knowledge.

But the idea of science occupying the entire realm of knowledge is a
*philosophical* statement. It's certainly a philosophical statement a
great many scientists probably accept, but it is not an idea intrinsic to
the practice of science itself.

>Today many of the world's most famous
> physicists are proclaiming the imminent prospect of a "theory of
> everything"-and they do mean everything. It may be that these
> physicists-and the evolutionary biologists who talk just like them-are
> no longer practicing "science" and have become metaphysicians.
> What is important is that they mix metaphysics and science together
> and present the whole package to the public with all the awe-inspiring
> authority of science. I have read that 500 million persons have seen
> Carl Sagan's Cosmos series, many of them in the public schools, and
> very few of them were warned that "What you are about to see is
> metaphysics, not science." The Time cover story for December 28,
> 1992 says it all: the title asks "What Does Science Tell Us About
> God?" The answer is plenty, and more all the time."
>(Johnson P.E., in Van Till H.J. & Johnson P.E., "God and Evolution:
>An Exchange", First Things, 34, June/July 1993, pp32-41.

But this only supports what I'm saying. Suggesting that scientific enquiry
tells us all we need to know about reality is "mixing metaphysics and
science together".

>>Basically, then, I don't see any necessary connection between
>>Methodological Naturalism (used by science) and Metaphysical
>>Naturalism (used by some philosophers).
> I don't claim that there is a "necessary connection between
> Methodological Naturalism...and Metaphysical Naturalism", because
> clearly Methodological Naturalism can be practiced by people who
> are not Metaphysical Naturalists.

This is precisely my point. What I find puzzling is where you say things
like "if MN is carried out consistently it becomes Metaphysical
Naturalism". That is the same as saying there is a necessary connection
between MN and Metaphysical Naturalism.

>But in*in practice* there is a
> connection, because if MN is carried out consistently it becomes
> Metaphysical Naturalism when it gets to origins and Christianity.

But I think this is exactly where you're not understanding the distinction
between methodology and metaphysics. Methodology *only* denotes "in
practice". Metaphysics *only* denotes "in reality". It makes no sense to
suggest that a methodology, carried out consistently, makes metaphysical
claims. What *would* be accurate is to say that, *if* someone believes
that a methodology really is the only correct way of finding out reality,
*then* one may derive metaphysical claims via the methodology. But -- and
this is the vital point -- that claim that a methodology is the only
correct way of finding out reality is a *philosophical* statement not
intrinsic to the methodology itself.

> The first is seen by MN's postulation of mutliple universes to avoid
> admitting that God may have created the universe. When this is
> denied (explicitly or implicitly) it becomes Metaphysical Naturalism.

I don't think MN can directly "postulate" anything. It is only a kind of
framework, which guides inquiry. I think of it as the microscope (or
telescope) through which science looks at the world. Whether or not the
results of the process are really *true* is a philosophical question not
directly related to MN.

> The second is seen in so-called "Critical Scholarship" of Christianity.
> Following MN, it is assumed in advance that there must be a
> naturalistic explanation of the Biblical miracles and therefore Jesus
> becomes just another religious leader.

If you want the scientific analysis of Biblical events, then *of course*
everything is going to be reduced to naturalistic claims. But since when
do Christians suppose that science is the best way to interpret scripture...?

>>>Which just concedes the point! If MN can't even explain the
>>>origin of theuniverse, but TR can, then TR is the more inclusive
>>>theory and MN its subset.
>>That really does not follow at all. MN *should* not address
>>metaphysical questions. That does not make it necessarily a subset
>>of "TR", or anything else for that matter. It simply means that MN
>>and metaphysics/philosophy are two different things.
> Disagree. See above.

I don't see anything above which shows that methodological naturalism is a
subset of TR, nor that it is the same as metaphysics/philosophy.

>>>Again this confirms my point that MN has no answers to the
>>orign of life either.
>>I'm no scientist... but isn't this where abiogenesis comes in?
> Yes. "abiogenesis" simply means the origin of life from non-life:
> "abiogenesis The origin of living from nonliving matter, as by
> *biopoiesis. See also spontaneous generation." (Isaacs A., et. al.,
> ed., "Concise Science Dictionary", Oxford University Press: Oxford,
> Second Edition, p1)
> MN has proved to date a failure in explaining the orign of life from
> non-living chemicals. As Francis Crick, co-discover of the structure
> of DNA, and avowed atheist, states:

Well, I'm not a scientist, so I'm not going to be able to say much of value
as to whether science really has succeeded yet in creating a viable theory
of abiogenesis. I simply thought you were saying that MN couldn't even
theoretically address the question, which is why I brought abiogenesis up.

>>I think what he is saying is that, within the context of science,
>>MN is best able to approach the issues. I'd even go one step further
>>with that, and say that MN *is* the scientific approach to all issues.
> Even though MN has failed in: 1) origins and 2) Christianity? On
> what basis do you make your assertion?

When you say MN has failed in origins, what do you mean exactly? That it
has not yet produced any correct conclusions, or that it is not even
theoretically adequate to address the issue? The former would be
irrelevant. The latter, if true, would simply mean that origins is not a
question science can address. (I'm not personally convinced that's the
case, though.)

As for MN failing in Christianity... what? Questions of religious truth
are *obviously* a matter for philosophy, not science. Science is purely
empirical, and religious questions are not the sort of thing you can play
with in a lab or dig out of the ground.

>>>I've got news for you. Johnson already *has* "serious respect in
>>>the scientific community": "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'm not sure that's necessarily indicative of great respect.
> If Johnson is regarded by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist as "the
> most respectable academic critic of evolution", yet you say that even
> that is not "necessarily indicative of great respect", then what you are
> saying is that *no* "academic critic of evolution" can be respected.

Actually, I was just throwing in a snide comment. Put it down to too much
caffeine. :)

> If true, this confirms my point that *in practice* Methodological
> Naturalism is just a applied Metaphysical Naturalism.

MN is entirely a practice. Metaphysical Naturalism, on the other hand, is
*not* a practice (i.e., I'm not sure what you mean by "applied").

>>As a Canadian university student, I find this interesting. Are
>>there any statistics, news reports, etc. you can point me to which
>>confirm it? It's certainly not a trend I'm personally observing.
> I live in Australia, so I am not aware of any Canadian "statistics, news
> reports, etc".

Well... where did you get this information that "Intelligent Design is
gaining ground in universities across USA and Canada, both among students
and faculty members (including scientists)"?

>>That's not really correct. Remember, the study of ultimate
>>reality is metaphysics, which is philosophy. Science is another thing
>>altogether, and deals solely with empirical data and inferences from
> And why should those "inferences" rule out the possibility of God's
> acting supernaturally, e.g. in the case of the origin of the universe and
> the origin of life?

Because the existence of God is a metaphysical issue, and not subject to
empirical inquiry.

>> If you believe that there are truths which are not accessible by
>>scientific methods (i.e., MN), then (in your opinion, at least) there
>>*are* true things that aren't even theoretically within science's grasp.
> I have no problem with some "truths which are not accessible by
> scientific methods". But I do have a problem in the assumption that
> *no* "truths" about God are "accessible by scientific methods".

Easy. God = metaphysics.

>If an
> Intelligent Designer really did create the universe and life, I can see
> no reason why science can study that up to the point of actual
> creation, and acknowledge that it was the work of an Intelligent
> Designer.

You are forgetting again that science is a limited kind of inquiry.
Whether or not something is really the case has no direct bearing on
whether or not science can study it. Intelligent design, whether true or
not, is a necessarily philosophical issue. Not only does it hinge on
positing a deity (a metaphysical claim), but it works with the idea of
"design", which is far too loose a term to be even theoretically useful in
science. (Basically, science would have no non-question-begging way of
establishing criteria for "designedness". For that matter, philosophy may
have no way of establishing such criteria either.)

>>>Yes. If Burgy doesn't even get the name of TR right, then it is
>>>indicative that he does not understand what TR is.
>>That seems a bit uncharitable. Should I conclude from the fact
>>that you get fallacy names wrong that you don't know what fallacies
> are?
> You would be entirely within your rights to assume so, and I would
> not regard it as "uncharitable". I would much appreciate you
> correcting me, where I am wrong.

My point is, getting the name of something wrong obviously is not the same
as not understanding the thing in question. If it *were* the same, then
your minor labelling errors would mean *you* didn't understand fallacies.
Do you agree that you didn't (or don't) understand fallacies? I doubt it.
Hence, you cannot use that principle to suppose that he doesn't understand TR.

>>(For example, in this same post, you misuse the term "special
> pleading"
> Please explain where, with reasons. Thanks.

Earlier in the post to which I responded, you said that somebody (I think
it was John Rylander) was committing the special pleading fallacy. The
issue was, I think, whether or not Philip Johnson should be taken seriously
regarding evolution, when his primary training is in rhetoric. (I don't
think that was actually the issue John had in mind exactly, but that's what
you were addressing, anyhow.) Whatever the case, even if John said that,
and even if it was fallacious, it is not special pleading. Special
pleading is the fallacy of suggesting that a conclusion ought to be
accepted or disregarded because of certain practical circumstances.
Examples of special pleading:

"We can't accept the conclusion that God exists, because then all the
atheists would be so irritated that they'd start a nuclear war."
"We can't accept the conclusion that God doesn't exist, because that would
make all the theists really sad." (a specialized kind of special pleading
called "argumentum ad misericordiam")
"You have to accept that the existence of God is unknowable, because if you
don't, I'm going to break your kneecaps." (another specialized version,
"argumentum ad baculum")

>>and in the past you have misapplied "ad hominem".
> I don't wan't to rake up old coals on this one, but I disagree with your
> assessment that I "misapplied `ad hominem'"

Just for reference, argumentum ad hominem is the formal fallacy of saying
that a person's position is right/wrong because of their personal
characteristics, when said characteristics actually aren't relevant to the
strength of the position at all. The examples you have in the past
supplied of "ad hominems" did not actually exemplify the ad hominem fallacy
at all. What does actually verge on an example of "ad hominem" are your
posts attempting to negate Glenn Morton's criticism of Ross and Johnson on
the basis of his Christian credentials. Ironically enough.

>> Does this mean that you can't recognize fallacies? Or does it
>>just mean that you make occasional minor errors?)
> Burgy has said, and I have accepted that he made an "error". But at
> the time I I took his words at face value.

My point was simply that, even "taken at face value", minor errors in
labelling cannot be taken to denote ignorance of the subject.

>>>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."
>>Wouldn't "understanding reality" be metaphysics, as opposed to
> science?
> I would have thought that science is the actual method of
> understanding of reality. Metaphysics (ie. philosophy of science) is
> the theoretical underpinning of why science is able to understand
> reality.

Philosophy of science is not the same thing as science. It's more like the
philosophical perspective on science. Science itself is capable of telling
us all sorts of things; whether or not we accept those results as actual,
or as the entirety of reality, depends entirely on our *philosophical*
conclusions *about* science. Now, most people certainly do believe that
science, to some degree, tells us something about the way the universe
really is. My only point is that, whether they realize it or not, they are
there practicing philosophy. (And that is not by any means an attack.
Despite what some people seem to think, "philosophy" is not just a code
word for " superstition and fantasy".)

>>I think it might be more accurate to say that science allows us to
>>organize and make sense of empirical data.
> How can we "make sense of empirical data" if we are not
> "understanding reality"?

Science takes in all the empirical data and gives us conclusions regarding
it -- that is what I mean by "making sense of it". The truth of those
conclusions is certainly important, but not something science itself can

Science, like any other system, is self-consistent but cannot prove its own
soundness. To prove the soundness of any system, you have to look outside
the system -- in this case, to philosophy.

>> Whether or not that empirical data corresponds to reality, or
>>to the entirety of reality, would be a philosophical question.
> That's what I said. You have confirmed my point.

It's my point as well, so perhaps we agree on that much at least.

>>>We are discussing MN as philosophy, ie. thinking about science,
>>>not actually doing science.
>>I think the point is that MN *isn't* philosophy. It *is* "doing
>>science", or rather the way to do science.
> Make up your mind. Is MN "doing science" or "the way to do
> science"? The first is science, the second is philosophy.

Okay, meticulously worded: "doing science is the act of applying MN. And
MN is the way to do science." I.e., they mean exactly the same thing.

>>Things like metaphysical naturalism or theistic design, on the
>>other hand, could be *true*, but they are philosophy and not
>>science. (Not that there's anything wrong with that...!)
> The point is that assuming a Methodological Naturalism gives and
> enormous advantage to "metaphysical naturalism", making it very
> difficult for Theistic Realism to make its case.

*Only* with certain philosophical assumptions. If one is a logical
positivist, or a scientific naturalist (a la Quine), then certainly one is
going to use MN and at the same time rule out TR. Simply using MN does not
in any way logically mean that you must be a metaphysical naturalist,
though, nor does it even provide any support for metaphysical naturalism
being true.

>This would be OK if
> "metaphysical naturalism" was true. But it is absurd if "theistic
> design" (ie. Theistic Realism/Intelligent Design), is true.

If metaphysical naturalism is true, then MN is the only correct way of
looking at reality. If metaphysical naturalism is *not* true, then MN
simply deals with a limited part of reality (i.e., the physical universe).
But it may be used just as consistently regardless of one's metaphysical
stance re the supernatural.


Mike Hardie