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But Is It Science? A Response to Methodological Naturalism

By Steven B. Cowan –

A few years ago, the Fox News program The O’Reilly Factor ran the following exchange between journalist Bill O’Reilly and then President of the Southern Baptist Convention, Paige Patterson, concerning the issue of Christian exclusivity:1

O’REILLY: I’d be offended if somebody came up to me and said, “O’Reilly. . .if you maintain your Catholicism throughout your life, you’re gonna burn for it.” I wouldn’t listen to them. . .
PATTERSON: Would you be offended by an oncologist who told you that you had cancer and if you didn’t get a treatment, you’re going to die?
O’REILLY : But there’s a difference between an oncologist who’s dealing with something concrete that you can see in an x-ray and somebody who’s dealing with a belief that is founded on faith.

From his remarks it appears that O’Reilly presupposes that science provides us with objective knowledge, while religion in general and the Bible in particular provide us with mere subjective opinion. Though he may not explicitly acknowledge it, O’Reilly seems to hold a view called scientism, the view that science is the only or best source of knowledge. According to philosopher Susan Haack, “[R]eligion and science really are profoundly at odds on all the dimensions I have distinguished; and science really is, on all those dimensions, far and away the more admirable enterprise.”2 Religion, for Haack and others who adhere to scientism, does not provide us with a sure source of knowledge. For scientismists, when conflicts arise between what religion or theology teaches and what science teaches, science always trumps religion. Thus, Bill O’Reilly can dismiss Pattersons position by invoking the implicit authority of science over religion.

But what about when religious people, Christian theists in particular, claim that science actually supports certain religious beliefs (e.g., belief in God)? For many years now, creation scientists have attempted to marshal scientific evidence in defense of the biblical account of creation. And more recently, the intelligent design movement (ID) has uncovered an incredible array of data supporting the conclusion that the universe and biological life within it are the work of an intelligent designer. Well, advocates of scientism and others who oppose movements like ID-those who want to maintain the autonomous authority of science over religion in our culture-claim that creationism and ID are not scientific; their theories are not really scientific theories but religious theories. Why? Because their theories make appeal to supernatural causes. That is, opponents of creationism and ID argue that any appeal to a supernatural cause for some phenomena (e.g. the origin of the universe) is simply unscientific.

For example, in 1981, the state legislature of Arkansas passed a bill requiring balanced treatment of both creation-science and evolution in public schools. In the now infamous suit brought by the ACLU to knock down the law, the plaintiff’s attorneys claimed that “creation-science is religion rather than science.”3 They further said that:

[t]he use of scientific techniques and terminology does not make creation-science science. Plaintiffs expert science witnesses. . .will testify that science is rooted in natural laws, not supernatural persons, events, or processes. A system of belief that has as it s center the interruption, suspension, or nonexistence of natural laws and, in lieu thereof, the intervention of a supernatural and omnipotent Creator(God) is not science.4

Similarly, concerning the research of the intelligent design movement, evolutionist Douglas Futuyma writes, “When scientists invoke miracles [i.e., supernatural agency], they cease to practice science.”5 And Michael Ruse remarks, “Design is not something you add to science as an equal-miracles or molecules, take your pick.”6 Jean Pond, a theistic evolutionist, echoes this theme when she claims that “[e]xplanations involving God are not satisfactory explanations in science” and “in science invoking a supernatural force is equivalent to cheating in sport.”7

So, the question before us is: are movement s like creationism and ID scientific? Can a scientific theory include explanations and causes that are supernatural (i.e., not natural)? In this article, I will argue that the answer is yes.

METHODOLOGICAL NATURALISM

Why do some scientists and philosophers think that creationism and ID are not science? It is because they have adopted a particular definition of science, a definition that rules out supernatural explanations from the start. Note once again the language of the ACLU brief in the Arkansas creation-science case: A system of belief that has as its center the interruption, suspension or non-existence of natural laws. . .is not science. The obvious implication of this is that science, by definition, is naturalistic. William Overton, the judge who presided over the case, is more explicit. He wrote that:

the essential characteristics of science are:

(1) It is guided by natural law;
(2) It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law;
(3) It is testable against the empirical world

(4) Its conclusions are tentative, i.e., are not necessarily the final word; and
(5) It is falsifiable.8

Notice especially points (1) and (2). Both of these points together entail that science cannot appeal to non-natural causes and any theory which does so is, by definition, unscientific.

The view that science must proceed naturalistically and forbid any appeal to non-natural causes is called methodological naturalism. The idea is that science must be conducted according to a method that seeks only natural causes and explanations. As Michael Ruse puts it, “[M]iracles lie outside of science, which by definition deals with the natural, the repeat able, that which is governed by law.”9 Thus, science has been defined as inherently naturalistic such that it becomes incapable of supporting any religious conclusions.

So, it is the belief in methodological naturalism (MN) that motivates thinkers like Ruse, Pond, Haack, and others to claim that creationism and ID are not truly science. They are not science because they are willing to go beyond the natural in the pursuit of explanations for things. The methodological naturalist is not open to non-natural explanations, at least not insofar as science is concerned.

If MN is correct, then creationism and ID theory are failures as scientific programs. Only if it makes sense that a scientific theory can legitimately invoke a non-natural cause can creationism and ID work to establish the conclusions they promote. But, MN entails that it cannot make sense for a scientific theory to invoke a non-natural cause. So, creationism and ID are labeled as religious rather than scientific disciplines.

PROBLEMS WITH METHODOLOGICAL NATURALISM

It turns out, however, that MN suffers from several defects which make it implausible as an approach to reasonable scientific inquiry. These flaws in MN also make it reasonable to believe that creationism and ID can indeed count as legitimate scientific endeavors.

First, though perhaps least important, MN has the implausible implication that most of the founders of modern science would not count as scientists! As Nancy Pearcey points out, the majority of the pioneers of science-men like Newton, Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo-were all Christian theists who believed that the universe was the creation of God, a grand intelligent designer.10 What is more, their belief in God provided a philosophical basis for their scientific work and even figured in their scientific theorizing. These early modern scientists were, in effect, intelligent design theorist s! Are we to believe that these men were not true scientists? Of course not, yet this is what MN would make us believe.

Second, MN assumes that there is and has been a clear and undisputed definition of science. The claim that science, by definition, excludes supernatural explanations presupposes that scientists and philosophers of science have a clear definition of science that neatly demarcates it from other disciplines. Recall from above Judge Overton’s confident assertion of the “essential characteristics” of science.

However, there simply is no clear and undisputed definition of science even among advocates of scientism and MN. In fact, most philosophers of science are agreed that it is not possible to give a definite set of necessary and sufficient conditions for what counts and does not count as science.11 For example, let us recall once again the definition offered by Judge Overton. He claims that a scientific theory, by definition, has to meet the five conditions noted above. J.P. Moreland has pointed out, however, that these conditions for what counts as scientific are neither necessary nor sufficient. There are uncontroversial examples of scientific theories which fail to meet one or more of these conditions, and there are theories in disciplines outside of science that meet these conditions.12

Third, by limiting science to natural explanations, MN could unnecessarily prevent the scientist from knowing the truth. Insofar as science is supposed to help us discover the truth about the natural world, MN comes with serious liabilities. Before any scientific investigation is ever begun, MN would have us limit the scope of admissible explanations, effectively ruling out of bounds a whole range of possible causes for various phenomena. Surely, it is at least possible that the existence of biological organisms is the result of intelligent intervention into the course of nature. Surely, it is possible (and by no means implausible) that the universe was finely tuned by an intelligent designer. Should a scientist qua scientist have no interest in such possibilities? If not, why not? Don’t scientists already have an interest in finding intelligent causes for phenomena in many other areas of science (e.g., forensic criminology, archaeology)?

For the sake of argument, let us suppose that the Big Bang was indeed caused by an intelligent, supernatural being like God, and that there is empirical evidence for the existence of this intelligent designer. If the scientist who wants to understand the nature of the origin and cause of the universe adopts MN as his method, then he will be prevented from ever knowing the truth about the origin of the universe. What truth-seeker would ever want to adopt an epistemological method like that? Why, if science is indeed limited to natural explanations, should any rational person (least of all the theist) have one iota of interest in doing science?

One begins to suspect that the real reason why some scientists and philosophers insist on MN in science is because they do not believe that it is possible that the universe or biological organisms were intelligently designed, or that there is any empirical evidence for such a design. This leads me to my last point of critique.

Fourth, methodological naturalism presupposes metaphysical naturalism. MN is the idea that science should seek only natural explanations and that attempts to find supernatural causes are ipso facto not science. Metaphysical naturalism, on the other hand, is a stronger thesis which asserts that there just are no supernatural beings or causes. According to metaphysical naturalism, all that exists is the natural, physical world. Metaphysical naturalism is not a method for discovering truth, it is a worldview that tells us what is true and what is not true. And what is not true, according to metaphysical naturalism, is that there is any God or supernatural reality of any kind.

Now there are many scholars who embrace MN but who would not embrace metaphysical naturalism. Some theistic evolutionists are a case in point. However, the question arises: why would anyone who is not a metaphysical naturalist care to adopt MN? As noted above, given the possibility that God exists and that he might leave empirical traces of his intervention in the course of history, MN is a methodology that could prevent us from knowing the truth.

A metaphysical naturalist has plenty of reason to adopt MN. He believes that science can only admit natural causes because natural causes are the only kinds of causes that are even possible on his worldview. So, MN is a method of science that is tailor-made for the metaphysical naturalist. However, the theist (and perhaps the agnostic who is open to either worldview being true) would seem to have little or no motivation to adopt MN. Indeed, for the theist, who believes that God has in fact intervened in history in numerous ways, and who believes that the laws of nature are simply God s way of ordering and governing his creation, MN would appear to contradict the very heart of his worldview. The reason is that MN requires the theist to pretend as if things he believes to be true are not true, namely, that God did not directly create the universe or biological life.13

So, practically speaking, MN presupposes metaphysical naturalism. Which means that MN is not so much a neutral, objective, scientific view (as it is usually touted), but is part and parcel of a particular worldview.14 The only good reason to adopt MN, then, is if one is also inclined to adopt metaphysical naturalism. But few scientists, even those who purport to follow MN, would want to be identified with the atheism implicit in that worldview.

SOME OBJECTIONS

Methodological naturalists may object to the above arguments in a number of ways. I will outline three such objections.

1. Advocates of MN may raise the old God-of-the-Gaps Objection. Appeals to supernatural causes in science are just ways of filling the gap s in our ignorance, they might say. They will point out that, in many cases in the past, events and phenomena attributed to God turned out to have natural causes after all. So, for example, the conclusion reached by ID theorists that an intelligent designer is responsible for apparently irreducibly complex organisms is simply a short-sighted way-station on the way to a true, natural explanation. Methodological naturalism, of course, would not fall victim to the God-of-the-Gaps.

There are at least two responses to this objection. First of all, the objection assumes that there are no actual supernatural causes and that gap s in our ability to explain things naturally are simply due to our ignorance. Hence, the MN advocate begs the whole question against creationism and ID. Unless we assume the truth of metaphysical naturalism, we cannot assume that gaps in our knowledge do not sometimes have supernatural explanations.15

Second, and more importantly, it is not the case that creationists and ID theorist are simply filling the gaps in our ignorance. ID theorists, in particular, have gone to great lengths to establish objective criteria for recognizing the presence of intelligent design in nature, using such concepts as irreducible complexity and specified complexity.16 By using such criteria, appeals to supernatural causes are not simply stand-ins for our ignorance. Rather, they are reasonable conclusions drawn from positive evidence. Let me illustrate by way of an analogy. Suppose that some astronauts are exploring a distant planet and they stumble across a large machine hidden in a cavern. The machine has lots of moving parts and electronic components, and it has the discernible purpose of drilling holes in the cavern walls to extract metallic ores. The astronauts conclude, “This machine was built by intelligent beings.” Are the astronaut s guilty of the “God-of-the-Gaps”? Are they simply trying to fill in their ignorance of a natural cause for the machines existence? Of course not. They are recognizing the presence of intelligent design. Likewise, when ID theorists conclude that the universe is the product of an intelligent designer, they are attempting to base that conclusion on positive indicators of the presence of design in nature.

2. Advocates of MN may object to creationism and ID by claiming that appeals to supernatural causes are science stoppers. Scientific knowledge advances because scientists are an inquisitive lot, always asking questions, always probing, always testing and refining their hypotheses, trying to figure out how things work. But, as Alvin Plantinga puts the issue, “There will be little advance along this front if, in answer to the question, ‘Why does so and so work the way it does?’ . . .we often reply , “Because God did it that way . . .”17 Saying “God did it” brings scientific inquiry to an end because the scientist cannot probe any further . So, it might be argued that scientist should adopt MN because it is necessary to the progress of science. In response, we may point out that this objection is also guilty of begging the question. What if, in some cases, God did do it? Then to adopt MN would again prevent us from acknowledging that truth. What is more, further scientific probing for a natural cause would, in that case, be fruitless. Ironically, it turns out that MN would actually be a science stopper!

Also, the objection is guilty of a false dilemma. It assumes that there are only two options: either we adopt MN and rule out any and all appeals to supernatural causes, or we must have an end to science altogether. That is, either we forbid supernatural explanations in science or we will be subject to the unpleasant possibility that all events are supernaturally caused and thus have no need to search for natural causes at all. But, there is a third alternative, the alternative proposed by classical Christian theism, namely, that God orders the world to operate according to predictable regularities (natural laws), yet sometimes intervenes supernaturally for specific purposes. Adopting this third alternative does not make for a science stopper. As Phillip Johnson argues, “The possibility that divine intervention may occur set s limits to the scope of scientific understanding, but it emphatically does not imply that all events are the product of an unpredictable divine whimsy.”18 Rather, this third alternative calls for us to expect that most of the time events will have natural explanations, but yet be open to the possibility that some things will not-and to develop criteria for telling the difference.

3. Some MN proponents, namely, theistic evolutionists, may also claim that a rejection of MN impugns the character of God. Howard J. Van Till is one who appears to make this claim: “I find it theologically awkward to imagine God choosing at the beginning to withhold certain gifts from the creation, thereby introducing gaps into the creations formational history-gaps that would later, in the course of time, have to be bridged by act s of special creation.”19 According to Van T ill, divine interventions into the process of creation, once started, mean that

God overpowers what he had earlier given being and causes it to do something different from, or beyond, what its creaturely being empowers it to accomplish. Special creationism places considerable emphasis on Gods creative action as a display of power and desire to coerce material into assuming forms that it was insufficiently equipped to actualize with its God-given cap abilities.20

Apparently, the idea is that special creation, in which God interjects his creative power to “coerce” creatures to be other than what their inherent cap abilities allow, makes God into a bully or egomaniac. A good and all-powerful creator would “get it right the first time”. So, Van Till opts instead for a view he calls fully gifted creation, in which God creates a world that has a robust formational economy that develops and evolves according to powers that God places within it at the very beginning.

Jay Wesley Richards has responded to views like Van T ills, pointing out that God may very well have good and benevolent reasons for creating a world that does not have a “robust formational economy”. He writes,

Maybe [God] want s to be able to interact with his creation or with his creatures in a variety of ways, both directly and indirectly. . . . Maybe he prefers a world that has a certain “artifactuality” to it, and that is clearly not self-explanatory, at least for the open-minded. Maybe he fancies a world where natural scientist s, in searching the starry heavens, would get a glimpse of the King of Heaven.

. . .Maybe he seeks, as Dallas Willard put s it, to create a “God-bathed world”. Perhaps he prefers a world in which, to quote Paul, “what can be known about God is plain to [human beings]”, and in which Gods “eternal power and divine nature” can be “understood and seen through the things he has made “(Rom. 1:19-20).21

Richards’ point is that a denial of methodological naturalism does not impugn Gods character. In fact, we should see God’s supernatural interventions into the course of creation and history as acts of divine grace.

CONCLUSION

Are creationism and ID science? Can it be legitimate to appeal to supernatural agency in a scientific theory? We have seen that methodological naturalism-the “no” answer to these questions-suffers from serious problems. These problems make it unwise, perhaps even irrational, to claim that science must, by definition, limit itself to natural explanations. So, are creationism and ID science? Yes, indeed.

Steven B. Cowan, Ph.D., is the Associate Director of the Apologetics Resource Center and editor of Areopagus Journal.

NOTES

1 The OReilly Factor (Fox News Network, November, 1999).
2 Susan Haack, Point of Honor: On Science and Religion, Skeptical Inquirer 28:2 (March/April 2004): 56-62.
3 ACLU legal brief at trial as quoted by Normal L. Geisler, The Creator in the Courtroom: Scopes II (Milford, MI: Mott Media, 1982), 44.
4 Ibid., 46
5 Douglas Futuyma, Miracles and Molecules, Boston Review 22:1 (February/March, 1997): 29-30.
6 Michael Ruse, Enough Speculation, Boston Review 22:1 (February/March, 1997): 31-32.
7 Jean Pond, Independence, in Science and Christiantity: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 97, 98 (emphasis hers).
8 Judge Overtons Ruling on the Balanced Treatment for CreationScience and Evolution-Science Act as quoted in Normal L. Geisler, The Creator in the Courtroom , 176.
9 Michael Ruse, Darwinism Defended (Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1982), 322.
10See Nancy Pearceys article The War that Wasnt in this issue of Areopagus Journal.
11See Larry Laudan, The Demise of the Demarcation Problem, in But Is It Science? , ed. Michael Ruse (New York: Prometheus, 1988), 337-50; See also J.P. Moreland, Christiantity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 17-58.

12 J.P. Moreland, Christiantity and the Nature of Science, 23-35.

13  Of course, a theistic evolutionist may object at this point by saying that he is not pretending that God did not create life or the universe, but is only holding a particular view concerning how God did these things.  Be that as it may, this provides no basis for adopting MN.  The theistic evolutionist, in this case, would have to reject MN, be open to the possibility of special creation, and come to hold his belief in evolution strictly on the basis of empirical evidence.  Yet, strangely enough, most theistic evolutionists are adherents of MN.

14 For more on this point, see Phillip E. Johnson, Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law and Education (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995), 205-218.

15 For a more detailed argument for the question-begging nature of MN, see Robert A. Larmer, “Is Methodological Naturalism Question-Begging?” Philosophia Christi 5:1 (2003): 113-130.

16 See Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box (New York: The Free Press, 1996); and William A. Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999).

17 Alvin Plantinga, “Should Methodological Naturalism Constrain Science?” in Science: Christian Perspectives for the New Millennium, eds. Scott B. Luley, Paul Copan, and Stan W. Wallace (Norcross, GA: Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, 2003), 128.

18 Phillip E. Johnson, Reason in the Balance, 92.

19 Howard J. Van Till, “The Fully Gifted Creation,” in Three Views on Creation and Evolution, eds. J.P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 187.

20 Ibid.

21 Jay Wesley Richards, “Howard J. Van Till’s ‘Robust Formational Economy’ Principle as a Critique of Intelligent Design Theory,” Philosophia Christi 4:1 (2002): 101-112.

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