One of the problems with the common assertion that science is the best way to decide between various worldviews, is that the same people who say that will also insist that science must be methodologically naturalistic. That is, when conducting science, only natural causes for phenomena can be considered. Put like that, some of us are hearing:
- Assume no God.
- Do science.
- Conclude no God.
That seems problematic to us, but here is John Loftus’ explanation of why this is not a problem, and along with it, my response.
Methodological naturalism (MN) is a method whereby all scientific endeavors—-all hypotheses and events—-are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes alone. Believers criticize the use of MN when it comes to the science of origins and their faith as a whole. The charge is that MN in science logically requires the a priori adoption of a naturalistic metaphysics. I’ve been struggling with how to answer this objection. Here is my latest attempt.
Prior to the scientific revolution MN was largely not something anyone had to argued for, as far as I can tell. Science just proceeded based on it. But as the scientific revolution started to produce the goods in every area it touched, it was noticed as the reason why science works, as opposed to faith based conclusions. So the first thing to say is that science cannot work without it. Everyone should acknowledge this fact, and it is a fact.
What does it mean for science to “work”? It seems reasonable to assume that science is working if it is producing true explanations or accurate models for the natural phenomena in the universe. There are all sorts of possible answers to any given question – the practical answer, the popular answer, the modern answer, the politically correct answer, the scientific answer, the philosophical answer… For me at least, my interest is in finding the true answer. Why science is so dependent on assuming that a whole category of answers to any possible question must ruled out from the start, I’ve never actually understood. What if the right answer is supernatural? If you assume it can’t be, you’ll never arrive at the actual explanation, no matter how pure your method. Sure that opens the door to all sorts of wacky and serious supernatural explanations for your question, but all we’re doing is adding them to the already infinite list of serious and wacky natural explanations for the question. (“Aliens did it” would be a purely natural explanation, right?) That said, supernatural explanations do not generally lend themselves to being tested by repeatable experimentation, and so are not particularly accessible to scientific study.
It’s claimed that MN prohibits supernatural explanations. But not so fast, it doesn’t, most emphatically.
I’m actually confused here. What is it, then? If I understood the first sentence right, MN means that only natural causes are to be considered as the explanation for any event. That seems to rule out supernatural explanations. I have no idea what MN would even be if it were not the ruling out of supernatural explanations.
It doesn’t prohibit testing stories in the Bible with the science of archaeology like the Exodus, or the wilderness wanderings in the desert for 40 years, or the Canaanite conquest reported in Judges, nor does it prohibit testing whether there was a census at the time Jesus was born, nor does it prohibit testing the language styles used by the writers of the Bible to see if there are more than one writer for Isaiah, or that 2nd Peter was a forgery.
This is a series of worthwhile investigations into the truth claims of Christianity that has little to do with the charge that’s supposedly being answered here. By all means, analyze the archaeology, history, literary criticism and everything else as skeptics have done forever. The problem is how we should analyze claims of supernatural activity. For example, it’s no use dismissing the resurrection of Jesus as physically impossible. Of course it’s physically impossible – that’s the whole point! Incorporating MN to examine the claim of Jesus’ resurrection is a manifest waste of time. That’s deciding what the answer has to be before you’ve even asked the question. As another example, we Christians are not impressed when we’re told the gospels are historically unreliable because they must have been written late, when that conclusion is based on the naturalistic assumption that Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple must have been written after the fact. Assuming naturalism when approaching specifically supernatural claims, far from guarding us from error, serves only to dodge the actual question and avoid the issue.
It doesn’t prohibit scientific tests on prayer to show there is a supernatural deity, nor does it prohibit scientifically testing so-called prophecies or psychic abilities.
And here is an example of where bad argumentation simply needs to be discarded. Scientifically testing the efficacy of prayer is absurd both theologically and scientifically, as Mr. Loftus ought to know. Scientifically speaking, is it not almost always necessary when testing human behavior, to conceal the purpose of the experiment from the subject? (I’m open to correction here, having never studied any social science) If the subjects know what’s being testing, chances are they will change their behavior and ruin the value of the test. So a study that boils down to a behavioral experiment on God is scientifically void if God knows what is being tested (as he certainly does). Theologically, there can be no doubt. “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test,” Deut. 6:16 and Matt 4:7. And again, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah,” Matt 16:4. Should we be surprised that the Sovereign Lord of all creation does not submit to this kind of foolishness?
More to the point, how does this further the case in favor of using MN to test claims of supernatural phenomena? If only natural causes are to be permitted, the possibility of prayers being answered by God is ruled out from the start. It seems like this experiment is actually one in which MN is specifically not being used, since the hypothesis being tested has to do with whether God will act in answer to prayer.
In fact MN is the method scientists use to test all of these claims and more. If the results were positive then science based in MN would show us that these claims are true. The problem for believers is that science based in MN has consistently shown all of these claims to be false. Now that’s not the problem for MN. It’s a problem for faith-based claims. If science based in MN successfully showed these claims to be true then believers would change their tune and crow about it. Because it turned out differently they must find some loophole to attack it.
Let’s refocus here because categories are being blurred. Again, the Christian objection is that it is inappropriate to assume only naturalistic causes when dealing with events where a supernatural cause is asserted.The first list of claims that Mr. Loftus gave do not include any examples where supernatural activity is primarily in view. Christian and Atheist archaeologists alike operate on the assumption that only natural forces (including humans) have been acting on artifacts from the time they were laid down until today. The Christian might say that the walls of Jericho were knocked down by God, but he’s not likely to suggest that God has “tampered” with them since.
No one says that MN by itself can tell us everything about the nature and workings of the universe. It is only as reliable as that method works. It seeks natural causes for everything. So it is a limited method. It does not presuppose itself unless someone says it is the only method for understanding reality, for then it excludes other ways of knowing about it. However, with that said there is an important question that need to be addressed. To what degree of probability can we rely upon MN to produce the goods? I say it is overwhelmingly probable, almost virtually certain to do so given its past record.
So MN is not the only method for understanding reality, but it is a limited method that will only produce accurate results as long as the question being asked is one that has a natural answer. Agreed. This is followed by the assertion that MN has an overwhelming probability of “producing the goods.” What are we to understand are the goods? If I’ve understood your general epistemology correctly, you think science/MN is the correct method to use to answer all questions of importance, including the existence of God, the origin of the universe, all questions of morality and whether Star Wars or Star Trek would win in a fight. When brandishing vague rhetorical flourishes like “MN’s past record,” let’s remember that the Yankees have a remarkable record, but I wouldn’t bet on them in the Super Bowl. Assuming no air resistance may get me the right answer on my high school physics test, but it’s not going to work as well when I want to put a satellite in orbit. Likewise, the methodological assumption of naturalism is suitable only to certain contexts.
So where are we? God supposedly created a world that is best explained by a method that looks for natural causes if we want to learn about it. He did that, on their view.
Yes, God created an ordered universe with principles that can be discovered. Science is an apt method to answer some questions, but certainly not all questions.
That method has gradually jettisoned supernatural explanations by scientifically literate people. And believers find themselves arguing against it, saying it’s circular, when it clearly is not. So they are arguing against what their God created in order to believe in him. Don’t you find that strange? That their God would put something in place that undermines their faith whereby they must selectively deny it to believe?
God created an ordered universe. We do not deny this, and the assumption of natural laws is what stands behind every claim of a miracle. What we do deny is turning the general principle of an ordered universe into an absolute rule by which no supernatural claims may be considered. All we’re saying is that assuming there is no God is not a good starting place for asking the question, “Does God exist?”
And what is it they think excludes its grasp? An ancient pre-scientific barbaric superstitious unhistorical set of selected canonized sacred books
That which actually stands over and above the order of the created universe is the God who created it. He, of course, is not bound by any of the natural laws that govern the creation.
as they interpret them in today’s world?
Christians do not claim any authority for their “interpretations.” The only thing that is inspired is the text itself, which is why careful exegesis is so important.
This does not make sense to me and a growing number of scientifically literate people, especially since other mutually exclusive religionists do exactly what Christians do with their sacred texts. Religionists would all agree with Christians against MN but then go on their merry way with their mutually exclusive faiths containing no reliable alternative method to settle their own differences, while having perennial debates within their own houses of faith with no resolution in sight.
False claims of scripture do not prove that there is no true scripture any more than counterfeit money proves there is no such thing as real money. Contrary to what seems to be asserted here, interfaith dialogue is alive and well today. Christians and Muslims, for instance, do a great many debates, and believe it or not, they don’t consist entirely of “My book says your religion is wrong.”
When there is a crime do investigators assume a natural cause? Or, do they assume Allah did it? Isn’t it more productive to assume a natural cause? And doesn’t assuming a natural cause lead to solving crimes? What if we cannot solve that crime? Then what? Should we leap to Allah as the cause?
What would we do if we did?
So MN is a good way to answer some questions – no argument here. There’s a difference between having an unanswered question and witnessing a miracle. The disciples are not operating from a lack of evidence when they watch a basket of bread feed 5,000 people. It was the evidence itself that demanded a supernatural explanation.
Or, should we simply suspend judgement? Now it might be that Allah did the “crime.” The method doesn’t preclude that possibility. It’s just that with MN we cannot come to that conclusion. So using it might not allow us to solve a supernaturally caused crime. I get this. But if assuming a natural cause cannot help us solve the crime what other method do we have? As far as I can tell faith has no method, solves no crimes, and leads to dead ends. If Yahweh exists and did the “crime” then MN itself doesn’t allow us to conclude that he did. Therefore, if Yahweh exists he must convince reasonable people by other means. Here is a list of things he could have done but didn’t right here.
God does have a method (Rom 10:17, Acts 16:14…) It might not be the one that makes sense to us, but we’re not wise are we?
Let’s not get overly rhetorical and act like recognizing the limits of MN means the end of all reasoned discourse. Again, we’re not saying there are not avenues for reasonable inquiry into the Christian faith. The point is that you don’t get very far by assuming the antithesis of what we believe.
Let’s say MN largely excludes supernatural explanations. Then by using this method we have gained a massive amount of knowledge. It works. So we should apply that same method outside criminal investigations, science, and history to the Bible itself. Why not? Perhaps there is a better method? We just don’t know of one that works so well. What we do know is that faith has no method and has been wrong so many times it makes our heads spin.
MN does work for specific questions, maybe even most questions. That doesn’t really answer our objection. I’m honestly completely baffled by “faith has no method.” Christians have methodically practiced every discipline of knowledge for hundreds of years and have produced libraries of rational thought that examine every particular of the Christian worldview. What “faith” is and what it’s been wrong about so many times, I can only guess at. It sounds like a vague reference to all religion, and of course if you lump together all the errors of every religion in history, it produces quite a pile.
So there is nothing about MN that is unjustified. The only reason believers dislike it is because their God did not do other things that would help convince us to believe. The fact is, believers use MN every single day.
In some sense we do, but that’s not the point. The problem is with using MN for questions where it is obviously not applicable.
They do not assume there is a demon behind every tree, like many did during the infamous witch hunt period. Today’s Christians are “enlightened Christians”, unlike them. Believers today have been brought to accept what the biblical writers did not accept and now they have trouble defending their faith.
Of course the range of people who claim the label “Christianity” is staggeringly broad. Most of those you will encounter apologetically probably do believe in demons and do accept whatever the Bible teaches.
So they must attack MN when that is the very method they have been brought to accept as an enlightened Christians. They just use it selectively. In every area except those rare areas that conflict with their pre-scientific sacred book they accept it.
Methodological naturalism works so well it’s very probable that nature is all there is.
On the contrary, creation is so obviously ordered by precise natural laws that depend on very finely tuned universal constants, it’s a wonder anyone can believe that nature is all there is.
How does that presuppose it’s own conclusion? We must think exclusively in terms of the probabilities. We may misjudge the probabilities, but we should never go against them when seeking knowledge about the nature and workings of the universe. MN has given us that knowledge. Faith has been wrong so many times it should be obvious it cannot be relied upon to produce any knowledge. Faith adds nothing to our probability calculations.
Lastly, by rejecting MN it can stunt the progress of science. As Randal Rauser wrote in chapter 7 of our co-written book, “God or Godless”:
Science can study the universe once it exists, but it can never explain what brought it into existence.
With Randal’s God explanation there is no reason to investigate why the universe exists, since he says science can’t do it. This is the standard theistic response to the unsolved mysteries of the past. Why keep betting on faith to solve them when it has solved nothing so far?
This is the standard faith vs. science rhetoric that depends on vague sweeping statements that seem obviously true to people who already believe them. Do Atheists wonder why Christians are not convinced by all their “reason” and “logic”? Simply asserting that “faith doesn’t work,” is hardly convincing to those of us for whom it does work every day. And science? Science is a beautiful method for investigating the mechanisms of God’s creation. Science helps us glorify God. We love science!
Those of us who came here with the specific question of why it’s not circular reasoning to presuppose naturalism when investigating claims of the supernatural, are left wondering what the answer is. It sounded like this post danced around (and at times seemed to admit) the fact that there is no answer, but finished with a rousing, “If you think this answer is bad, you should see the other side!” Understand that Christians are not trying to shut down discussion and inquiry with this objection – quite the opposite. It seems to us that assuming naturalism before you start is shutting down the discussion from the other side.