February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
June 26, 2011
In response to a recent post on this blog, a commenter challenged my view that science is quite properly “naturalistic” in its method—that is, ignores God. He raised some points that are worth unraveling. Here’s my response:
Thanks for writing. I respectfully disagree with your idea that methodological naturalism is “nonsense (at least for the Christian).”
Science doesn’t explain existence, i.e. that anything exists at all. But since everything that exists is absolutely inseparable from the mystery that it exists at all, methodological naturalism is not incumbent for the Christian.
On the contrary, almost everything is separable, for almost all purposes, from the mystery that it exists. The laws, history, and detailed behaviors of all the stuff we see around us have been studied in great depth and with great success for about 500 years without reference to the mystery of mere existence.
It seems to me that you confuse methodological naturalism—the practice of looking only for “natural” explanations of events—with metaphysical naturalism, the doctrine that material things are all that exist. Methodological naturalism, which is the dance-step of science, requires no metaphysical commitments at all: that’s why it’s “methodological.” It’s just the policy of trying to explain how things work in terms of purely natural forces and objects, where I would roughly define as “natural” anything whose characteristics are all objectively measurable and at least statistically predictable.
This method is the basis of almost everything we do. When we bake cookies using measuring spoons and baking powder rather than humbly beseeching the dough for its favor, we are methodological naturalists. When we assume that the repair shop will find a non-supernatural explanation for the loud knocking in our engine, we are methodological naturalists. When scientists seek natural explanations for everything in the physical world, they are methodological naturalists. What distinguishes science is just that scientists take everything that can be observed as the method’s realm, not just cookies and cars.
Science, like dance instruction, is procedural, not metaphysical.
There is, of course, no proof that the world must always cooperate. Starting tomorrow, butter could refuse to melt until we chant a spell over it. Or someone might show that a large portion of the Koran is coded into undisturbed, authentic T. Rex DNA 66 million years old. The most we can say about such hair-raising possibilities is that (a) if they ever occur, we’ll have to deal with them—but not until then; and (b) when or if one such a marvel does occur, and stays put long enough for everyone to get their cameras and rulers and thermometers on it and bang their heads against it, so that we are forced to agree that it exists, then science will just have to go around it, like a snowplow going around a telephone pole. Science will still be able to do its job everywhere else, but the space occupied by the Miraculous Thing will be a no-go zone, a dead spot, a place where explanations could never be discovered.
Science popularizers sometimes (e.g., here and here) say that a black hole—a place where the density of matter becomes, according to some calculations, infinite—is a place where “the laws of nature cease to exist”: but they’re only saying that to impress the rubes. What they really mean is that inside a black hole, all the laws we know of so far must be invalid. Newtonian physics breaks down, relativity breaks down, string theory breaks down, but something is going on, and scientists still assume that it is a natural something that obeys some natural laws. A miracle, on the other hand, would be place where the laws of nature really ceased to exist, or to operate—not just the laws we know, but any possible laws. You could never, even in principle, force God (or Buddha, or Zeus, or the Fairy of the Dandelion) under a microscope.
This is why working scientists never, in practice, let miraculous explanations play in any reindeer games. That is why they are all methodological naturalists, Christians included. Miracles are a science-stopper.
Perhaps, of course, miracles occur anyway. Logic, as I’ve said, can’t rule them out. But we should be very slow to declare, in any specific case—the origin of life, for example—that we have authentically and absolutely ruled out any possibility of a natural explanation and must therefore at last, for the first time in the history of science, break down and appeal to the supernatural. In fact, we should be so slow to do it that we never do it. To declare Science has failed! is to fall into the “God of the gaps” trap. Even Newton blundered into it, declaring that “the Divine arm” was the only possible explanation for the orbital motions of the planets. He was wrong, and it was left to other scientists—applying, ironically, Newtonian physics—to account for the motions of the planets without appeal to any Divine arm, leg, or nose.
In that showdown, as in all others to date, methodological naturalism won. It is the unbeaten hot-shot gunslinger of all time when it comes to explaining stuff; the street is littered with dead challengers. Yet the supply of cocky wannabes who think they can out-draw the Causality Kid seems inexhaustible. Creationists, in particular, are perennially sure that they’ve got what it takes to beat the Kid, that there is something in the history of life that cannot be explained in purely natural terms. For the sophistos among them it’s “irreducible complexity” and “specified information”; for the naïve it’s “you can’t fly with half a wing.” But all employ negative argument, all emphasize the alleged flaws, failures, and fallacies of evolutionary biology. For if science could ever be shown to really, truly have nowhere to go, to be absolutely stymied on some crucial point, then, like a sumo wrestler shoved out of the ring, we would be forced out of the realm of natural explanations. Cool trick, but nobody has ever managed to pull it off yet. The flaws don’t fly, the fallacies all fail, and the gotchas don’t get.
A few people have advocated for a “theistic science,” which sounds nice to some well-intentioned ears. If one believes in God, how can one deliberately leave God out of one’s search for Truth? But science is not a search for Truth; it is something far more humble and therefore achievable. It is a search for explanations. To advance scientific knowledge does not require that we penetrate to the mystery of existence, but only that we solve specific, intelligible problems, one after another. By specifying a method, not a metaphysic, science banished all irresolvable disputes, and its success has been vast and beautiful indeed.
But let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that a Christian who also happens to be a scientist suddenly decides that methodological naturalism is, as you say, “nonsense” and “not incumbent” on them, and resolves to go to the lab the next day and do science accordingly. What will they do—concretely, specifically—that differs from what they did the day before? How will their method change? I would answer: they will not change their method at all, because no other method is known—or even possible. Methodological naturalism is the only method that is a method. Every conceivable alternative, including the appeal to miracles, is a form of surrender.
Let’s take the same point from another angle. You write, “The Christian, then, can’t act as if God doesn’t exist, for God is the Existence of existence.” But what does it mean to act as if God does exist? How does one tie one’s shoelaces as if God exists? Perhaps one ties them while singing hymns of joy to Jesus, but one presumably ties the same knots as an atheist, using the same moves. In a physical, procedural sense every religious believer constantly acts as if God didn’t exist, because God’s existence or nonexistence doesn’t effect the procedures. And science is procedural, not metaphysical.
Finally, it seems to me that if methodological naturalism is “nonsense,” yet also the working method of all actual science (which it is), then science must be going seriously wrong somewhere. It must be stepping in many cow pies. What are some of these pies, specifically, and how do we know that science is stepping in them? Intelligent Design proponents, of course, claim that evolutionary biology is as rife with them as a crowded stockyard, but their arguments all fail on factual and logical grounds. In fact, I gather that you and I agree on that point.
Larry Gilman started growing up in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1962. Since the fifth grade he’s lived in other parts of New Jersey, in Chicago, and in Vermont, where he and his wife now hunker in the hills. He was trained as an electrical engineer but has since opted for a life of freelance writing and editing. He is Episcopalian.