On the Origins of Methodological Naturalism

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)).


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.


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.