On the Origins of Methodological Naturalism

| 67 Comments | 1 TrackBack

Remember how, according to the ID movement, “methodological naturalism” was supposed to be a Darwinist/atheist conspiracy to arbitrarily exclude ID? Well, let’s have a look at who coined the term. Ronald Numbers, one of the leading experts on the history of creationism, writes,

The phrase “methodological naturalism” seems to have been coined by the philosopher Paul de Vries, then at Wheaton College, who introduced it at a conference in 1983 in a paper subsequently published as “Naturalism in the Natural Sciences,” Christian Scholar’s Review, 15(1986), 388-396. De Vries distinguished between what he called “methodological naturalism,” a disciplinary method that says nothing about God’s existence, and “metaphysical naturalism,” which “denies the existence of a transcendent God.”

(p. 320 of: Ronald L. Numbers, 2003. “Science without God: Natural Laws and Christian Beliefs.” In: When Science and Christianity Meet, edited by David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, pp. 265-285.)

A few additional points worth noting here:

1. In case you didn’t know, Wheaton is a conservative evangelical school where the faculty and staff must agree with a detailed statement of faith.

2. The idea of methodological naturalism is of course much older than the term, stretching back centuries to the distinction between primary and secondary causes. (Glenn Branch dug around and found some evidence that the term may be older, but perhaps like the term “intelligent design” the words are associated occasionally over the decades, but without really being codified as an Official Term.)

3. But perhaps it was Darwin and those other dogmatic Darwinists that came up with methodological naturalism in the 1800’s in order to ram evolution down everyone’s throats. Not according to Numbers:

By the late Middle Ages the search for natural causes had come to typify the work of Christian natural philosophers. Although characteristically leaving the door open for the possibility of direct divine intervention, they frequently expressed contempt for soft-minded contemporaries who invoked miracles rather than searching for natural explanations. The University of Paris cleric Jean Buridan (a. 1295-ca. 1358), described as “perhaps the most brilliant arts master of the Middle Ages,” contrasted the philosopher’s search for “appropriate natural causes” with the common folk’s erroneous habit of attributing unusual astronomical phenomena to the supernatural. In the fourteenth century the natural philosopher Nicole Oresme (ca. 1320-82), who went on to become a Roman Catholic bishop, admonished that, in discussing various marvels of nature, “there is no reason to take recourse to the heavens, the last refuge of the weak, or demons, or to our glorious God as if He would produce these effects directly, more so than those effects whose causes we belive are well known to us.”

Enthusiasm for the naturalistic study of nature picked up in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as more and more Christians turned their attention to discovering the so-called secondary causes that God employed in operating the world. The Italian Catholic Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), one of the foremost promoters of the new philosophy, insisted that nature “never violates the terms of the laws imposed upon her.” (Numbers 2003, p. 267)

The next time you hear IDists ranting and raving about the evils of methodological naturalism, keep the above in mind. In fact, if the IDists don’t mention these rather important bits of history, you should ask yourself why.

4. So it looks like Judge Jones got it exactly right when he ruled:

While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science. (3:103 (Miller); 9:19-20 (Haught)). This self-imposed convention of science, which limits inquiry to testable, natural explanations about the natural world, is referred to by philosophers as “methodological naturalism” and is sometimes known as the scientific method. (5:23, 29-30 (Pennock)). Methodological naturalism is a “ground rule” of science today which requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify. (1:59-64, 2:41-43 (Miller); 5:8, 23-30 (Pennock)).

…and…

ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation

5. So who came up with methodological naturalism – the idea, as well as the term? It turns out it was those notorious atheists, the Christians.

Despite the occasional efforts of unbelievers to use scientific naturalism to construct a world without God, it has retained strong Christian support down to the present. And well it might, for, as we have seen, scientific naturalism was largely made in Christendom by pious Christians. Although it possessed the potential to corrode religious beliefs – and sometimes did so – it flourished among Christian scientists who believe that God customarily achieved his ends through natural causes. (Numbers 2003, p. 284)

6. All of this is worth pointing out because the ID Movement at large has been complaining that methodological naturalism is an unfair constraint on science, and in particular critics of the decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover, such as Alvin Plantinga and Steve Fuller, have been asserting that methodological naturalism is an arbitrary, recently invented constraint – Fuller has even gone so far as to say it was constructed as an anti-creationism tool in the 1980’s. It may be that the coining of the term “methodological naturalism” was useful in the 1980’s – especially to rebut the eternal creationist yammering about the search for natural causes being atheistic, but also to keep science separate from metaphysical conclusions like atheism – but the idea is ancient and really is at the heart of the history of what we now call “science.” Plantinga and Fuller cite Newton as a non-methodological naturalist (which itself is probably dubious although Newton is a complex guy), but regardless, Numbers makes it clear that methodological naturalism goes back to Galileo and before.

If anyone ever sees an ID advocate acknowledge these sorts of points, please let me know.

References

de Vries, Paul (1986) “Naturalism in the Natural Sciences: A Christian Perspective.” Christian Scholar’s Review, 15(4):388-396.

Ronald L. Numbers (2003). “Science without God: Natural Laws and Christian Beliefs.” In: When Science and Christianity Meet, edited by David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, pp. 265-285.

PS: A bit of commentary from Numbers himself on the ASA listserv.

PPS: I have edited the link for the “ID” part of “ID Movement” to correct a misunderstanding pointed out here.

1 TrackBack

Once you label me, you negate me. - Soren Kierkegaard This post by Nick Matzke on Panda's Thumb made me laugh (moreso than usual). This sentence, in particular, seemed odd: All of this is worth pointing out because the ID Movement at large has been... Read More

67 Comments

“The University of Paris cleric Jean Buridan (a. 1295-ca. 1358), … contrasted the philosopher’s search for “appropriate natural causes” with the common folk’s erroneous habit of attributing unusual astronomical phenomena to the supernatural.”

So, in the 14th Century we had the common folk’s erroneous habit of attributing unusual astronomical phenomena to the supernatural.

While in the 21st Century, we have the uncommon folk’s erroneous habit of attributing unusual biological phenomena to the supernatural.

Ha!

Clever play on words Chris, all those uncommon dissenting folk..

I’m going to bet that the term and distinction predates this. Someone should go through Francis Schaeffer’s and Hermann Dooyeweerd’s writings and see if it pops up there in the early 70s and 60s.

For what it’s worth, on the ASA list Ted Davis posted an email from Ron Numbers. Ted Davis said,

The following comes from Ron Numbers, prof of the history of science/medicine at Wisconsin and the leading historian of American religion/science. I use it with his permission.

In my essay “Science without God: Natural Laws and Christian Beliefs” (which will finally appear next month in When Science and Christianity Meet, Univ. of Chicago Press), I have the following note (based on extensive, if not exhaustive, research):

The phrase “methodological naturalism” seems to have been coined by the philosopher Paul de Vries, then at Wheaton College, who introduced it orally at a conference in 1983 in a paper subsequently published as “Naturalism in the Natural Sciences,” Christian Scholar’s Review 15 (1986), 388-96. De Vries distinguished between what he called “methodological naturalism,” a disciplinary method that says nothing about God’s existence, and “metaphysical naturalism,” which “denies the existence of a transcendent God.”

I talked with de Vries, and he thinks he coined the term.

********

I consider this definitive, unless someone is able to produce an earlier passage they can quote at length in which the term “methodological naturalism” is explicitly used and implicitly or explicitly defined.

ted

Another term, “methodological materialism”, I think traces to Nancy Murphy in the early 1980’s. So perhaps it’s possible that “methodological whateverism” was banging around for awhile before MN was officially coined.

I’m sorry to disappoint but offering criticisms of methodological naturalism - however poor you may consider them - does not make me part of the “ID Movement at large”, whatever that is. I don’t see how bifurcations like this are helpful.

Thanks for reading, though.

Steve Fuller, have been asserting that methodological naturalism is an arbitrary, recently invented constraint — Fuller has even gone so far as to say it was constructed as an anti-creationism tool in the 1980’s.

This guy would say pretty much anything if he thought it helped his “argument.”

Fuller is to philosophy what Anna Nicole Smith is to pop culture.

But that’s par for the course for all the creationist “leaders,” isn’t it?

Re Judge Jones’ conclusion that:

ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation

one might argue that Jones is merely shifting the “debate” to the issue: “What is supernatural?” That is, one might raise this point if one were stupid and inclined to engage in creationist apologetics or if one were paid to engage in such behavior.

ID shillers love to make the bizarre claim that the “designers” could be a “mere” race of aliens (assuming your parents and/or community leaders allow you to entertain such thoughts).

Are aliens necessarily supernatural?, the ID promoter asks, scanning his 3 x 5 card for the next “debate point”.

The answer, of course, if “hell yes” – if the key feature of the aliens is the ability to do the things that the ID proponent insists can not be done without the aliens.

Game. Set. Match.

I wonder how long it took Judge Jones to figure this out. I’m guessing about five minutes.

Nick,

“… Numbers makes it clear that methodological naturalism goes back to Galileo and before.”

This is false. Numbers clearly says on p. 272 that “…natural philosophers had often expressed a preference for natural causes, but few, if any, had ruled out appeals to God.” He goes on to say that “by the latter nineteenth century” scientists came to agree that “God talk lay beyond the boundaries of science.”

HH

I’m sorry to disappoint but offering criticisms of methodological naturalism - however poor you may consider them - does not make me part of the “ID Movement at large”, whatever that is.

Wait a minute – is HH that the arrogant “philosopher” dude Hugo Holbling?

Surely it must be. Even in the two lines comment, the signature elements are all there!

What makes Lord Hugo part of the problem is not that he “offers criticisms” of methodological naturalism. It’s that – like Steve Fuller and other halfwit idealogues – Hugo plays politics but pretends to be “above it all.” Like Fuller, when called on to defend obvious creationist biases in his rambling screeds, Hugo kicks up dust and whimpers about being persecuted and misunderstood.

Yes, it’s pathetic when adults behave like Holbling and Fuller and other so-called “philosophers.”

Below is a link to a classic example of Hugo “at work.” Warning: the condenscension on display may sicken those who haven’t developed resistance to Holbling’s “style.”

http://www.galilean-library.org/blog/?p=90

Macht

Numbers clearly says on p. 272 that “…natural philosophers had often expressed a preference for natural causes, but few, if any, had ruled out appeals to God.”

How many is “few, if any”?

I don’t think it matters, really. If we have written evidence of substantial numbers of “natural philosophers” expressing a preference for natural causes, it’s pretty much guaranteed that some “natural philosophers” “dared to be different” and chucked the God fallback position entirely.

Human nature.

The idea of solving a problem efficiently by not wasting a lot of time praying over it is an old old idea, almost certainly older than the problem of creating an ink that won’t fade so people can permanently record ideas about how to solve problems.

But the problem is that atheists and materialists go beyond “methodological” naturalism to promote philosophical naturalism.

Dawkins, Dennet, Harris are probably the most well known propagandists for this view and it is subltly pushed on students in my area by “recommending” the above authors to students while not “requiring” their reading.

Who do you all think you are kidding?

But the problem is that atheists and materialists go beyond “methodological” naturalism to promote philosophical naturalism.

I’m curious — is ID an attempt to combat that? Is fighting atheism (er, I mean “philosophical naturalism”) what ID is all about?

Nick Matzke Wrote:

In case you didn’t know, Wheaton is a conservative evangelical school where the faculty and staff must agree with a detailed statement of faith.

In fact, they recently fired one of their outstanding young philosophy professors, Joshua Hochschild, because he converted to Catholicism. The Wheaton statement of faith didn’t explicitly rule out Catholicism, and Hochschild said he felt comfortable with the statement as worded, but the school didn’t think his understanding of their statement was compatible with their understanding of Catholicism. I suppose the fact that Hochschild got his Ph.D. from Notre Dame and that he specialized in Aquinas should have tipped them off originally.

Emanuel Goldstein Wrote:

Who do you all think you are kidding?

Seeing that you are a fictional character within the fictional context of 1984 who can’t even spell his name correctly, I’d say you are the wrong person to be asking that question.

And just think: despite all these lengthy philosophical ruminations, all it would take to conclusively prove that “methodological naturalism” is not only not a common-sense tenet and a useful practical guideline for science, but in fact a “hamstringing” limitation (as Plantinga claims), would be for Plantinga, Holbling & C to come up with one (1) specific supernatural causal explanation that can be empirically tested by science. Just one.

Until then, all supernatural explanations will be heuristically equivalent to and indistinguishable from “I don’t have a clue”. This whole discussion seems to be a torrent of words that scientists do well by ignoring.

Goldstein wrote:

But the problem is that atheists and materialists go beyond “methodological” naturalism to promote philosophical naturalism.

And non-atheist scientists don’t. So what’s the “problem?”

A minor quibble: from the title of the post, it’s unclear whether the concept of MN is being referred to, or the origin of the phrase. If the latter was the intent, “methodological naturalism” should be in quotes.

Matzke Wrote:

[quoting Numbers] The University of Paris cleric Jean Buridan (a. 1295-ca. 1358), described as “perhaps the most brilliant arts master of the Middle Ages,” contrasted the philosopher’s search for “appropriate natural causes” with the common folk’s erroneous habit of attributing unusual astronomical phenomena to the supernatural.

So astrology was not a science back in the 1300s either!

I enjoyed reading this post in particular - it explains why we have come to do things the way we do them as scientists.

Tracy Hamilton: You are discovering why good history and philosophy of science can be useful to scientists. Of course, they can be disasterous when bad …

Registered User, I think it’s sad that you have so little respect for reason that you have to indulge in character abuse. I think that probably explains why you believe Hugo is playing politics. The question stands, however: How are bifurcations like you’ve been assuming useful? I think you should consider that there are plenty more sides to this issue than for or against.

Dawkins, Dennet, Harris are probably the most well known propagandists for this view and it is subltly pushed on students in my area by “recommending” the above authors to students while not “requiring” their reading.

Back in RE* class in secondary school, I was required to read chunks of the Bible for study purposes (I think we also covered the Koran). It’s only problematic if it’s presented as truth rather than as an interesting opinion that you should be aware of. Was this in fact the case when these books were recommended?

* Religious Education, for those non-Brits who have no idea what I’m talking about

Who do you all think you are kidding?

Why, we think we’re kidding you, ‘Emanuel’… what, you mean we’re not??

Oh no! the creationists have found us out!!! RUN!!!

Keith Miller has a another earlier use of the term on the ASA list http://www.calvin.edu/archive/asa/2[…]03/0501.html

Ted Davis put me onto the Paul de Vries article, and indicated that Ronald Numbers thought it to be the first use of the term. The article itself suggests that de Vries thought it to be his original term.

I do know of an earlier paper in which the term was used. It was pointed out to me by a new philosophy of science hire at Kansas State. The article is – Edgar Sheffield Brightman, 1937, “An empirical approach to God”, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 46, No. 2, p. 147-169. The paper is rather philosophically dense for me, and I don’t entirely follow all of his argument. However, his real focus is “metaphysical naturalism,” which he usually just refers to as “naturalism.” He introduces “methodological naturalism” only to distinguish it from this “metaphysical naturalism” and does not really develop the idea.

Below is a partial quote of the paragraph in which the term is given –

“Every thinking experient will, in some sense, reach the stage of naturalism. He will accept nature as the space-time order described by the sciences. …. Such a universal naturalism – common to idealists and realists, to naturalists and theists alike – may be called scientific or methodological naturalism. But methodological naturalism is sharply to be distinguished from metaphysical naturalism. The latter takes the incomplete description and heuristic methods of the former to be either final truth about reality or at least the limits of present human knowledge.” (p. 157-158)

The author then goes on to argue that theology and philosophy are valid ways to knowledge and address aspects of human experience that naturalism cannot. Examples discussed include mystical experience, purpose and meaning, teleology, and values. He is essentially laying out his philosophical argument for the existence and study of God.

While there are elements of de Vries argument in Brightman’s essay, the meaning and significance of MN is not really developed. It is not clear, at least to me, what exactly Brightman had in mind.

So, I would say that it is de Vries who first lays out the full meaning of MN for both science and faith.

However, I should also stress that I have made no independent literature search on this term myself.

Dawkins, Dennet, Harris are probably the most well known propagandists for this view and it is subltly pushed on students in my area by “recommending” the above authors to students while not “requiring” their reading.

So, just to get this out in the open…

You are objecting to inserting a philosophical/religious viewpoint into scientific studies, and so your solution to this problem is to insert a philosophical/religious viewpoint into scientific studies?

Pardon me for having a laugh at that one.

So who came up with methodological naturalism — the idea, as well as the term? It turns out it was those notorious atheists, the Christians.

Ooh, the levels of irony. In the Roman era, Christians were indeed considered atheists by the Romans because they would not accept the gods of the Roman pantheon.

Fears over teaching creationism

Schools should not be teaching the Bible-based version of the origins of the world, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said. … Dr Williams said: “I think creationism is, in a sense, a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories. …

“Methodological naturalism” is the default method humans have always employed when trying to understand the world around them. Nobody with a shred of common sense accepts “God did it” as a proximal cause until they have tried to think of a mundane explanation and failed.

Even someobody gullible enough to believe that the Virgin Mary made a miraculous appearance on his grilled cheese sandwich still mostly practices methodological naturalism. A disbeliever in methodological naturalism would have to wonder if every grilled cheese sandwich was due to the direct intervention of God.

PaulC Said: “Methodological naturalism” is the default method humans have always employed when trying to understand the world around them

And when they cross a road.

Its a pity “True Believers” could not practice what they preach and use the “supernatural” method to cross a road.. there would be a lot less of them.

That’s why I like Sundays …Christians are off the streets.

wamba Wrote:

Ooh, the levels of irony. In the Roman era, Christians were indeed considered atheists by the Romans because they would not accept the gods of the Roman pantheon.

“We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” - Richard Dawkins

Welcome to the Evil Atheist Conspiracyâ„¢, Mister So-Called Goldstein. Thor is waiting for us all on the other side, patiently rapping Mjollnir against his palm.

I wrote:

A disbeliever in methodological naturalism would have to wonder if every grilled cheese sandwich was due to the direct intervention of God.

I’m afraid I might have obscured my point in an attempt to be funny, so how about this formulation:

People who believe in miracles by necessity assume that most of what they observe is not a miracle. Therefore, even people who believe in miracles are methodological naturalists.

Or a third version: The most ardent bible thumper becomes a methodological naturalist when there’s money at stake.

CJ O’Brien commented: The problem there is that there are no a priori limitations as to which domains science can legitimately concern itself with. The “immateriality of mind” is an example. As the mind falls under scientific inquiry, “non-reductive dualism” is false, and no amount of metaphysical gerrymandering will make it true.

You don’t have to suppose such limitations are a priori, necessary, essential, obvious, of fixed. I take the restriction against appeal to non-natural agency, in the course of scientific inquiry, to be an utterly contingent, procedural commitment. I also take it that the question of the immateriality of the soul, which cannot be decided solely on the basis of empirical evidence, is paradigmatically metaphysics. Similarly, empirical evidence may bear on the claim that human agents do/do not have free will. But it is not decisive. To affirm or deny libertarian freedom turns on such issues as agent causality, moral responsibility, divine providence and even the problem of evil. That some scientists offer a “scientific” (i.e., strictly materialist) answer to these questions does not diminish the efficacy of the distinction between science and metaphysics. The lesson of the positivist attack on metaphysics: to maintain that the ability of science to increasingly account for mental phenomena somehow proves (e.g.) dualism false is to engage in metaphysics. The belief that science can account for all aspects of reality is itself a metaphysical commitment. To the point at issue on this list-serve: although there are metaphysical commitments that constitute the basis for scientific inquiry (although I don’t regard any such commitments as individually necessary), the design inference is explicitly grounded in commitment to a fairly specific ontology of the person (immaterial, contra-causal freedom, causal agent) that should be recognized as a piece of metaphysics. This does not render it false, weak, confused, agenda driven, irresponsible, or stupid. Neither, by the way, does it make it religious. Libertarian dualism is not a religion. It only means that it should not be regarded ultimately as science. ID has never tried to hide the fact that they are not so much arguing for dualism as arguing from dualism. See Dembski’s gloss on “intelligence.” To miss this is to misunderstand why the argument is a complete loss for many scientists: they reject its philosophical basis. -bob

Flint,

If you watch Star Trek (and I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t), you’re familiar with the character Q (an omnipotent, but completely natural being). If I understand you, you’re saying that any bizarre happenings could be natural phenomena, e.g., caused by Q. Therefore, we have no reason to look beyond nature.

If we’re ever able to understand Q, that understanding is likely a ways off (he’s way beyond the grasp of those in the 24th century). And we may never be able to understand him (perhaps human understanding has limits). Either way, we’re presently completely ignorant of Q as a natural cause (to the extent that we don’t even know if he exists). Why, then, is more reasonable, more scientific, to postulate such causes than to consider supernatural ones (again, assuming for the sake of argument that the “supernatural” is meaningful)?

In short, why accept methodological naturalism? The practial response to that question is, “it’s worked really well in the past.” But we are here postulating bizarre happenings with completely unknown natural causes. Will that answer work?

In short, why accept methodological naturalism?

What’s your alternative, and how does it work? Show us.

It seems that if a god existed, he would find it impossible to convince Flint of that fact.

I like Star Trek too, but it is decidedly not a good source of info on science. Granted it’s sometimes better than some other shows have been (e.g., Lost in Space), but the few episodes that touched on evolution were way wrong.

Henry

In the ASA archives I picked up a usage of the term “methodological naturalism” in a November 1984 article by Norman Geisler:

In summation, Young does not reckon with the distinction between operation science, which always involves a recurring pattern of events in nature against which a theory can be tested, and origin science which does not. Failing to acknowledge this distinction, he (wrongly) assumes that all science should be defined the way operation science is defined, namely, naturalistically. Taking this naturalistic definition of science and applying it to origins, Young employs a form of methodological naturalism which would seem to be contrary to his Christian beliefs about the origin of the universe.

From a mostly dubious but sometimes OK PCSF paper by Del Ratzsch (p. 25, note 37):

37. For instance, Boyle, in his 1688 Disquisition writes:

a Naturalist [scientist], who would Deserve the Name, must not let the Search for Knowledge of First Causes, make him Neglect the Industrious Indagation of Efficients [emphasis his]

and Bacon in De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum writes:

For the handling of final causes in physics has driven away and overthrown the diligent inquiry of physical causes, and made men to stay upon these specious and shadowy causes without actively pressing the inquiry of those which are really and truly physical, to the great arrest and prejudice of science.

Ratzsch, Del (2004). “Design: What Scientific Difference Could It Make?Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 56(1), pp. 14-25. March 2004.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Nick Matzke published on March 20, 2006 9:54 PM.

Chance and regularity in the development of the fly eye was the previous entry in this blog.

Another radical atheist comes out in favor of evolution. is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Categories

Archives

Author Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.381

Site Meter