We don’t need no steenking Philosophical Naturalism


Oh dear, it's happening again. We scientists are usually rather mellow, undemanding folk. Give us a cyclotron or an electron microscope and we will happily stay out of peoples way (pausing only to invent Plasma TV screens, or some such frippery). But what really gets our goat is when people decide to tell us what science is. It's bad enough when philosophers or sociologists do it, but now lawyers want to get in on the act. Yes, lawyers (see Is Beckwith Right? Does MN entail PN?) have decided that since science uses Methodological Naturalism, it automatically means we are all dedicated to Philosophical Naturalism. Well, that gets an entire heard of caprine organisms! Well, we scientists have bad news for you lawyer buckos, we don't do isms. We test things. And sometimes we test things that everyone widely accepts as "supernatural" that our lawyer friends would have us believe that dread Methodological/Philosophical whatever-it-is-ism will not allow us to test.

Like Ghosts. Ghosts would have to be the quintessential supernatural entities. Yet scientists used to regularly cart around sensitive microphones, video cameras, infrared imagers etc.etc. trying to capture these critters. They don't do it so much now as all instances of ghosts turned out to be mundane things like marsh gas, teenagers or plain old self-delusion, not because the methodological Naturalism police have got onto them. You see, ghosts may be supernatural entities that hurl books/furniture/videotapes of the exorcist around the room by the suspension of natural law, but we can observe and measure flying books. So long as the supernatural entity has an observable effect in our world, we can study it.

Then there were the milk drinking statues in India. Pretty supernatural by all accounts. Spoilsport scientists went out with coloured dyes and showed it was all capillary action. Seems no one bothered to tell them that they weren't allowed to investigate a supernatural phenomenon by the dread Methodological Naturalism.

And of course there is intercessory prayer. Praying for someone to get better would seem to have just the tensiest bit of supernatural involvement in it, and should be rigorously banned by the iron tenets of Methodological Naturalism. But no, respected journals such as Archives of Internal Medicine and British Medical Journal have published papers on intercessory prayer, peer-reviewed even (eg. Arch Int Med, 2001, vol 161, 2529-2536). Sure they were controversial and many column inches were devoted to discussing ... blinding, crossover trials, statistical significance, objective endpoints, controlling for people who are praying at home, types of prayer and methodological and testing issues. No one seemed to have twigged to the fact that Methodological Naturalism supposedly bans testing such supernatural events. Mustn't have had any lawyers around the lab on those days. Again, a supernatural entity might be responding to prayer, but if it does respond, we can certainly objectively measure changes in disease outcomes.

Now if studies of intercessory prayer can get into prestigious peer-reviewed journals, how come ID can't get into peer-reviewed journals?


Ian wrote “Mustn’t have had any lawyers around the lab on those days.” Naw, all the lawyers were out planning their upcoming cases under the “No Lawyer Left … “ um … the “No CHILD Left Behind” Act.


Ians examples, including the milk-drinking statues, raise the following question:

Let’s say we observe something that appears to contradict the laws of nature. How can we tell whether it is a supernatural phenomenon or a natural phenomenon for which we have no current explanation? If we put Galileo in a room secretly hooked up with the most modern audio technology and broadcast the voice of God to him, would he think it a miracle, or would he start looking for the hidden speakers? If we travelled back 500 years and used a defibrillator to re-start someone’s heart in the presence of Paraselcus, would he think it miraculous?

Ian’s point is that it is possible to investigate **allegedly** supernatural phenomena, such as milk-drinking statues or intercessory prayer, but these often turn out to be natural phenomena (the milk-drinking statues) or no phenomenon at all (intercessory prayer). But if the phenomenon stubbornly continues to resist natural explanation, how can we ever conclude that the phenomenon is a bona fide miracle, or just something natural that we don’t understand?

The common denominator appears to be that supernatural acts are accpeted on the basis of faith and personal experience, rather than on the basis of independent observation and measurement. Robert Pennock pointed out (in “Tower of Babel.… run, do not walk, to your local bookstore and buy a copy) that Philip Johnson briefly toyed with the notion (in a 1990 book) that certain questions may never be understood by science, but rather by adopting “mystical states of mind” and consulting “sacred books”. Pennock claims that when he tried to pin Johnson down on this in public, Johnson claimed he didn’t mean what he wrote.

Johnson can’t have it both ways. He condemns scientists like me and Ian for not incorporating the supernatural into our enquiries, but he won’t tell us how to do it, or give us an experimental method for sorting the miraculous wheat from the naturalistic chaff Phooey to that, I say.……


I am a lawyer, and I strongly disagree with this post. I believe that anything other than philosophical naturalism is an absurdity, and that attempts to salvage it from what evolution really teaches us–namely, that all that we human beings are really is the product of natural forces working on matter–is really skirting the issue. For instance, in an earlier post, we were told that those of us who believe that the facts do require us to abandon the myths of the past are “insult[ing] the vast ‘silent majority’ of religious people who accept science as it is currently practiced.” I don’t see how this is a serious argument, however. People are capable of adopting any number of totally incompatible ideas, and ignoring the tensions between these ideas.

In short, I’m one of those much-ballyhooed “Darwinian fundamentalists.” I haven’t thought it necessary to go at this point much more than I have in my ealier posts; particularly because I understand the tactical decision by those who believe that confronting people with the philosophical implications of evolution right off hand is only going to scare them away from the science. But as a lawyer who is at least relatively well educated in the issues of evolution and the philosophical arguments surrounding it, I do feel obliged to defend the sophistication of both lawyers and the hard-liners.

For example, you write that “sometimes we test things that everyone widely accepts as ‘supernatural’ that our lawyer friends would have us believe that dread Methodological/Philosophical whatever-it-is-ism will not allow us to test.” This is a very unfair characterization. Those of us committed to a strict scientific scrutiny of natural phenomena are VERY MUCH in favor of testing supposedly supernatural phenomena FOR A NATURAL BASIS. It is a serious straw-man argument to suggest that we are simply prejudiced against anyone doing a scientific study for the existence of ghosts, &c.

Now, again, I understand that I am in the minority here in insisting that a commitment to science requires us to abandon “ghost in the machine” explanations, in biology and in every other field of inquiry. I would vote to drop the subject, since we all agree that it is not conducive to the purpose of Panda’s Thumb. But if we’re going to keep bringing up the issue, we ought to do so with seriousness, and not either by ridiculing lawyers or by ridiculing arguments.

Beckwith is not a lawyer and does not claim to be. (He has an academic masters’ degree in law – not the professional degree lawyers have. His main degree is a PhD in philosophy from Fordham.)

“What is science?” becomes a legal matter when that question is raised in court cases. In many of the creationism cases, for example, the opponents of permitting creationism to be taught in public school science classes have included as one part of their argument that creationism is “not science.” You can’t say that something is “science” or “not science” without opening up the definitional question, and when that question occurs in a court case you can’t really be surprised that lawyers get involved. (You may also not be surprised if things get a bit odd in lawsuits, but that’s a different matter.)

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While there’s a worthy remonstrance in this post, it gets lost in some rather puerile rhetoric. Plus 4 stars for substantive content, minus three stars for style.

Timothy, the issue goes far deeper than just mere tactics. First of all, it’s important to understand that there is no such thing as Science with the big S, i.e. scientists do not have oaths, universally accepted professional standards or codes of conduct (other than those regarding fraud and plagiarism), or particular philosophical requirements. So, saying anything like “Science does (or does not) accept supernatural explanations” is meaningless. Scientists, individually, may or may not do so, and it’s entirely their business (and they may be right or wrong on the matter, which is also their business).

That said, I can envision cases in which science would be pretty much forced to accept the supernatural. If intercessory prayer was found to work, and to work only when a specific kind of God, and no other, is prayed to (or only when the unknowingly prayed-for patients are of a specific religion, and no other), I think searching for a natural explanation would be frankly unparsimonious, and the most direct explanation would be that that particular God exists and that He/She answers direct prayers. Not that I think anything like this is likely to become true, but as a scientist (and speaking entirely personally), I wouldn’t find anything wrong with that conclusion (under the understanding that, like any scientific inference, it too would be incomplete and provisional).

In addition to being a liability vis-a-vis the current creationist legal strategy, it is most importantly a misconception of science to state that it requires a commitment to philosophical naturalism. As far as I am concerned, all that science requires is physical phenomena which can be reproduced, or reproducibly observed.

One quick point before I drop the subject for now: You say “If intercessory prayer was found to work…the most direct explanation would be that that particular God exists and that He/She answers direct prayers.” Yes, that is certainly true. But then, that particular God would no longer be a supernatural phenomenon at all, but would be a natural phenomenon. I would be very much in favor of someone doing such an experiment (query whether a control would be possible), just as I would be delighted by a scientific study to demonstrate the existence of ghosts. Were ghosts proven to exist, they would cease to be pseudoscience, and would become science, and this is the goal of all of us nasty old reductionists.


I think it’s clear that Ian’s ire towards “lawyers” was directed at the Phil Johnsons, Van Dykes, and Beckwiths of the world, who are trying to argue that ID should be included in science classes because evolution is (they allege) based based on “philosophical naturalism”. They are trying to turn evolution into philosophy and then get equal time for ID as an alternative philosophical view. Perhaps Ian should have said “lawyerlike beings whose primary contribution to the ID debate is in legal commentary” or some such, but you can see how that might break up the flow of the post. As for the general flack lawyers get, well, the scientists have the nerd stereotype to deal with, so you can get Ian back the next time he talks about his research on “a protein so obscure that only four other people actually belive it exists.”

As for your being a philosophical naturalist, good for you, but you really can’t seriously believe that *science* is committed to *philosophical* naturalism. Science is about studying constrained proximal causes, not unconstrained ultimate causes, because only constrained proximate causes are accessible to testing via empirical data. How can science ever prove there isn’t a supernatural being behind the origin of the Universe, or behind the continued existence of the Universe? Science can only return the answer “not enough data to decide” on such questions.

One might decide that only testable scientific statements are meaningful, and that everything else is empty verbiage ruled out by parsimony – i.e., good old-fashioned logical positivism – but this is clearly a philosophical position.

It might be worth quoting a few bits from Mark Isaak’s methodological naturalism essay.

The naturalism that anti-evolutionists most object to is philosophical naturalism, which insists on natural explanations even outside science – i.e., that “nature is all there is.” Many scientists, however, do not accept philosophical naturalism either. Some are staunch believers in God or other supernaturalism, including major contributors to evolutionary theory, such as Alfred Russel Wallace, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and Ronald Fisher, and active researchers and defenders of evolution today, such as Kenneth R. Miller and Francisco J. Ayala (see also Slack, 1997). In the United States, by one poll, roughly 40% of scientists believe in an active personal God, and there are surely many more who believe in a God fitting a definition less restrictive than the one used in the poll (Larson & Witham, 1999). These scientists would hardly work to support a philosophical position that they are steadfastly opposed to. Right away, then, we see that the main complaint about naturalism is trivially untrue.

And his miniFAQ:

Evolution is not alone in its naturalism. All science, all engineering, all manufacturing, and most other human endeavors are equally naturalistic. If we must discard evolution because of this philosophy, then we must also discard navigation, meteorology, farming, architecture, printing, law, and virtually all other subjects for the same reason.

Science is methodologically naturalistic, not philosophically naturalistic, just like farming, architecture, or (IMO) law.

Timothy: Yes I guess one could say that, if intercessory prayer worked with the same reproducibility as Advil, IT would cease to be a supernatural phenomenon (or at least it would become a rather unexceptional supernatural one). However, I still think that its cause (God) would remain supernatural, provided it worked in the manner I described. Notice however how any scientific investigation of such cause would be limited to its direct effects on intercessory prayer, unless we found some other way it manifests itself in physically detectable, reproducible fashion. Basically, science is limited by its reliance on a set of empirical methods to study effects, not by any philosophical constraints over causes. But again, that’s just my opinion.

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“In short, I’m one of those much-ballyhooed “Darwinian fundamentalists.” I haven’t thought it necessary to go at this point much more than I have in my ealier posts; particularly because I understand the tactical decision by those who believe that confronting people with the philosophical implications of evolution right off hand is only going to scare them away from the science.”

Hmm, there is something Johnson-esque about the tone of the entire post, and I just pull this quote as an example.

The thing I wish to comment about is the suggestion that evolution advocates who state that you can accept religion and evolution both are doing it (solely) out of political expediency. This is qualitatively the same thing as PJ’s acusation that religionists who accept evolution do so in order to retain their funding, and not because they actually accept evolution. That is, the accusation that the people are hypocrites espousing certain views in order to gain advantage (political or monetary). Could it be that they simply disagree with the proposition that understanding evolution necessarily leads to a PN position?

Responding to Ian Musgrave, Nick wrote that “Science is methodologically naturalistic, not philosophically naturalistic, just like farming, architecture, or (IMO) law.”

But science does *not* in fact assume naturalism, either methodological or ontological, it simply seeks to explain phenomena in ways that are maximally predictive and unifying. Calling what science does “methodological naturalism” simply plays into the hands of creationists and IDers, who then claim that science, since it’s biased toward naturalism, must be “balanced” in the classroom by introducing supernaturalist hypotheses. Those who want to blunt Johnson’s Wedge should call science “science,” and the scientific method the “scientific method.”

The Kansas science standards say that “Science is the human activity of seeking *natural* explanations for what we observe in the world around us…” (my emphasis). Wrong: science simply seeks the *best* explanations according to a set of criteria which when satisfied, tend to unify phenomena within a single overarching explanatory framework. That framework is what we call nature. So although science doesn’t presume naturalism of any sort, it leads to a unified naturalistic view *if* we take it as our way of knowing about the world.

JKrebs says that the proposition that Methodological Naturalism (MN) entails Philosophical Naturalism (PN) “is really the central claim of the Wedge strategy as advanced by the ID movement.” Now, we can certainly dispute this entailment as Krebs does, but a simpler, more straightforward way to blunt the Wedge is simply to deny that science presumes MN. Unfortunately, many defenders of science against ID (e.g., Barbara Forrest, Paul Kurtz) have already pronounced that science *does* presume MN, so we have to get these well meaning allies to reconsider this claim, and agree that science is ontologically neutral in its methodological presuppositions.

Tom Clark Center for Naturalism www.naturalism.org www.naturalism.org/science.htm

Ian Musgrave, like many brilliant scientists, needs a good editor. Might I suggest that another lovely person from this site fix his little grammatical errors?

Grammar?! Ian don’t need no steenking grammar! ;-)

I’m going to repeat her what I just said in an e-mail with Timothy Sandefur:

I really do not believe that evolution is any more “naturalistic” than plumbing is. I don’t believe that evolution, or science, is a “worldview”, it’s a practical set of tools that work well when applied well. And I don’t think that evolution is any less compatible with religion than the germ theory of disease or meteorology. Yes, there is a subset of religious people who offer non-scientific and supernatural explanations as alternatives to these well established scientific explanations, but that does not mean that the scientific explanation is in conflict with “religion”, only that they are in conflict with a specific subgroup of “the religious”.

The 2001 Archives of Internal Medicine paper referenced in the post is indeed on the scientific study of intercessory prayer, but it is a commentary whose thesis seems to be that one should not attempt to study i.p. experimentally. For instance, the piece closes with these words: “Mixing experimental method with faith degrades both concepts. We do not need science to validate our spiritual beliefs, as we would never use faith to validate our scientific data.” Given that this is the thesis of paper, it does not seem that its publication in a prestigious journal supports the thesis that things like i.p. should be studied experimentally (though that point could still be valid despite it’s not being supported by the publication of this article).

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I once witnessed a reasonably scientific experiment in intercessory prayer in which the subjects were not humans but plants.

Some potted plants were divided into three groups, marked +, 0 and -. The + group were subject to earnest prayer for their well being while the - group were more or less cursed, i.e. subject to severe negative thoughts. The 0 group, as a control, were studiously ignored.

The results were surprising, the 0 group remained the same or grew normally, the + group thrived growing much more than the 0 group; but the - group withered and shrivelled.

This was taken to be proof that prayer works and that therefore there is a god who answers prayers. Unfortunately for this hypothesis, when the experiment was repeated by an avowed atheist who simply directed a positive or negative attitude to the plants, the same result wass obtained.

So whatever the results of intercessory prayer experiments they say nothing about the existence of any god.

Ed Brayton said:

“I don’t believe that evolution, or science, is a ‘worldview’, it’s a practical set of tools that work well when applied well.”

I hadn’t thought of it – to any depth – in these terms before, but if MN is considered a “worldview,” rather than merely a convenient label, Ed’s position might go a long way to resolving the issue of MN vis-a-vis PN.

The word “naturalism” does seem to imply an underlying philosophical commitment, even with the “methodological” modifier, which might be no more pertinent to the practice of science than it is to the use of proper grammar in writing. In the latter case, the rules “governing” the use of language are designed to maximize the effectiveness of communication. Similarly, the methods of science might simply be a collection of the most effective “rules” for investigating nature.

As such (and I’m piggy-backing on Tom Clark’s ideas here), science doesn’t *presume* the absence of supernatural phenomena, methodologically or otherwise. It just hasn’t found references to such phenomena to be very useful, in the sense that they have predictive or explanatory power. That’s why it makes sense to look for a naturalistic explanation before we give up on naturalist explanations altogether: the latter being the very thing Dembski, et al. want us to do.

I realize that the substance of what I said here is really nothing new, but in the theater of anti-evolution propaganda, it might be useful to harp on the distinction.

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This page contains a single entry by Ian Musgrave published on March 29, 2004 4:06 PM.

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