ELI5: What is exactly is Methodological Naturalism?

There is a thorough interesting and robust discussion starting up here. However, I’m unable to following the discussion because I don’t really understand what methodological naturalism is, and what is so special/contentious about it.

So in the vein of the (probably) the best page on Reddit. Would someone be kind enough to answer the following questions for me like I am a five-year-old?

  1. What is Methodological Naturalism?
  2. How is it different from other forms of naturalism? Presumably, we are talking about something more than exploring and investigating nature/the natural world?
  3. In a sentence (or two) why is Methodological Naturalism a contentious issue?

Always, thank you for your time.

NB: I recognise that I could have asked these questions in the topic itself, but I didn’t want to derail it with definitions and clarifications. It also means that the answer will be easier to find for other users in the future.

PS. ELI5 would be a great tag for the forum, I can see the questions now… “ELI5: What is common descent”, etc.


It is the assumption that scientific explanations need to be (or are) limited to natural mechanisms without recourse to any other influences (i.e. non-natural) that may or may not be factors.

It is often distinguished from Philosophical Naturalism (the assumption that nature is a closed system and no other outside influences exist) in that MN makes no such assumption about the existence or activity of these other things. It simply says our methodology is effective to detect these natural things, and we [in our scientific explanations] remain silent about anything that may be beyond that.

A lot of those words have “the devil in the details”. Loaded words like “natural” or “assumption”. Is it a limiting and active “presumption” - i.e. we will be intentionally blind to anything outside of what we deem “natural” causes? Or is it an observation - i.e. we simply haven’t found any non-natural explanations to be fruitful or efficacious toward understanding and prediction? MN critics see the former, and MN enthusiasts see it the latter way.

The controversy (often around I.D.) is that this definition is a “convenient” way of cutting them off at the pass and declaring something to not be real science. They object that we should all be willing to explore wherever any evidence leads, no matter whether it seems to be a purely “natural” cause or not. I’ll have a reply to Mr. Fisher in the other thread on this very subject when I can get back to it. Meanwhile … my real job calls!

Others will chime in with a lot more detail I’m sure.

Sorry about my long pause between replies here … I’m otherwise engaged and only grabbing a break to write this where I can.


Thanks Mervin. Really appreciate your detailed answer. Probably need some time to digest that and then come back with a few follow ups if that is ok.

Thanks again. L

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What defines a philosophical position is often one of the more difficult philosophical discussions. Like “what is existentialism?” the answer will likely require a college course surveying the opinions of various philosophers thought to be in that school of thought.

But the most frequent and significant usage of the term “methodological naturalism” is as a contrast to “metaphysical naturalism” which is a statement about reality, usually equating reality to the scientific worldview. By contrast methodological naturalism is a method for seeking the truth about things, and for some it means using the methods of science or looking for the explanations of things in the scientific worldview. But it seems to me that because this is all about an approach to philosophical or theological topics, it effectively means little more than plastering the name of science on top of philosophy and theology, which is pseudo-science. Another way to define methodological naturalism is to fully acknowledge the differences from scientific methodology, and to suggest that one still pursues answers in structurally similar way from proposed laws and principles that are natural in some sense.

Requesting a definition of terms is never considered derailing the topic. Clarification of the topic is the most important part of any topic.

We try to make our Common Questions ELI5 type material!

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Yes! Now that I think of it, many of the most common questions that might pop on the forum are already common questions. It is a great section of the website and it is clear that a lot of work has gone into it to make it accessible to the non-science/theology savvy reader.


OK, so if I am following you correctly, Philosophical naturalism ‘says’ “The natural world is all there is.” By contrast, methodological naturalism says, “there may be supernatural forces affecting the world, but it is the goal of science to study natural and not the supernatural. If supernatural ‘things’ exist it is not the purpose of science to either try to explain them or detect them.”

Would that be a fair summary, @Mervin_Bitikofer? Feel free to come back at me if I am wrong?

As to intelligent design, I don’t think I know enough about it to comment on the impact of MN on ID. In what way does it cut them off at the pass?

Thanks for your reply @mitchellmckain. Again I’m going to need to do a bit of thinking before coming back to you with some questions.

One thing did strike me though, you said:

Are you saying that for some, MN is a convenient way of saying there is no conflict between theology/philosophy and science, when in fact there might be? Or that it can be a back door to smuggling theology/philosophy into scientific discussions/conclusions? Or am I misunderstanding you? Either way, could you give me a couple of examples of what you mean?

Thanks for the encouragement, I’ll keep this in mind in future. :slight_smile:

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I haven’t commented, Liam, since I’m no expert on these matters but that sounds exactly right to me.

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Well - much of any claim I have is from all the time I’ve spent hanging out here listening to those who are experts … so I hope that counts for something in my case.

But for what it’s worth I think that’s pretty close, @LM77 Liam. The only tweak I would suggest (and this is coming from somebody who does not vilify MN, so my bias will show here) is that MN does not (contra its critics) decide in advance if something is naturally explainable or not, much less push for prohibition against exploration in any direction whatsoever. It would be better to say that science simply plods along exploring / explaining everything it can, and anything that truly lies outside of its observational capabilities (for whatever reason - ‘supernatural’ or otherwise) would simply remain forever on the list of “things we haven’t explained.” Science no more excludes any domain of exploration than it needs to declare that “thou shalt not explore any parallel universes.” or “we prohibit anybody from making a triangular circle.” There is no prohibition of any human making - only a “prohibition” from reality itself, as it were.


No. I am saying that the methods of science are only applicable to science and pretending that you are applying it to life, philosophical and theological topics is self-deception at best and pseudo-science at worst. And I was largely referring to those using MN as a convenient way to dismiss religion as not worth discussing. People are welcome to value whatever activities as they choose but I think honesty requires admission that this is a choice and nothing more than that.

definitely not

The part of science which generates an hypothesis is completely free. For that any imagination, visualization or whatever you use is welcome. It is only the next step of testing that hypothesis where those incapable of testing are discarded outright as not something which science can say anything about.

The whole point of the comment was to justify the use of a different definition of methodological naturalism as that of seeking answers from proposed laws and principles which are natural in some sense. I am much more interested in giving an example of this than of giving an example of the usage which I am condemning. For the latter, I think it suffices to say that scientific methodology is only applicable to science, PERIOD, end of story. For the former, I am suggesting that it would be an example of methodological naturalism to consider what kind of natural laws might apply to a spiritual existence.


Good enough for me. I just thought Liam’s was succinct and clear enough to me and wanted let him know. I’m sure your take on it will be more nuanced than mine but I’ll see what I can make of your clarification now.

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Of course; and just to be clear, the opening comment from my prior post wasn’t meant as challenge to your observations, but just me asserting that I too share in your uncredentialed humility regarding this subject. It was an invitation to take what I write with a grain of salt - not meant as a criticism of your offerings.


I think the term “methodological naturalism” is more misleading than helpful. Science is a set of techniques for identifying regularities in observable phenomena and explaining the in terms of existing regularities. It explains chemistry in terms of molecules and photons, and molecules in terms of atoms, and so on. Ultimately, all it’s saying is “this is the way we see stuff behaving”. The techniques of science rely on predicting observations based on those regularities. Anything that doesn’t follow those regular patterns of behavior – which would include things like miracles – can’t be studied by science since its methods don’t apply. No arbitrary exclusion is required.


And it’s a lame refuge for apologists who need a place outside of nature for their god to do stuff. That’s why conversations about MN are almost exclusively conducted among churchgoers, with some barely nonzero proportion occurring among philosophers of science.

I don’t know whether this is very helpful. Observations and regularities apply to the doings of minds. Human minds, almost-human minds, bird minds, beaver minds, fly minds, etc. Archaeologists are scientists, making observations and predictions based on regularities, but some of the phenomena they uncover can look like miracles and are certainly explained by “design.” I don’t think you meant to exclude design from the domain of science, but I do think the step from “design by a sophisticated mind” (which is, I hope you agree, obviously addressable by science) to “miracle” is small. The only goal of the ID movement, scientifically speaking, is to get gullible people to wander into territory involving “design.” Once there, gullible people can be snowed by faux distinctions between “science” and “not science” and between MN and intuition, etc. And by “snowed” I mean they can see that MN is not very robust as a definition of science, and voila, they are reinforced in their commitment to believing nonsense when spoken by white dudes with confidence.

My point is that while I agree that MN is misleading and mostly useless, except to apologists, I don’t think that any definition of science that appears to exclude design can help us solve the problem of tens of millions of gullible people who are ready to believe anything. And I am not sure how we can demarcate “miracles” from other things that don’t “follow regular patterns of behavior.”

How does MN differ from plain old “cause and effect?” (Well, excluding miracles.)

I think one difference is that MN doesn’t require either cause or effect, much less a link between them. Randomness, for example. I think the key aspect of MN is the N, which implies a commitment to some extent to require natural explanation. To me, that’s different from “cause and effect.”

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@jpm and @sfmatheson, I’ve always thought a key component for a good explanation is that it show how the new phenomenon fits with other phenomena with which we are more familiar. To merely identify something as the product of a mystery designer doesn’t really do that since the mystery designer is far from familiar.

To categorize a thing as having a miraculous or supernatural origin is pretty much the same as saying it is not possible to relate it to anything else we know. Assigning something to a black box like the supernatural, far from shedding any light on it, places it where no light can reach.

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Except that’s essentially the opposite of the ID argument. The ID argument says that design is something familiar and recognizable. Their arguments fail, usually pitifully, because they almost always advance design as an alternative to evolution.

I agree with you that simply asserting “supernatural designer” is not a good explanation for anything, at least not anything we have seen so far. In every case I have seen, the maneuver simply moves a mystery (which means a yet-unanswered question) to a place called ‘god.’

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That was a very helpful explanation. Thank you! The term “methodological naturalism” is new to me, but your definition makes me think that is how I operate as a scientist and a person of faith.

I have a vivid memory of my 11th grade Advanced Biology high school teacher, Mr Dammers, telling the class that he attends church on Sundays, but when he is doing science, he puts his “science blinders” on. He made this statement while putting his hands up to the slides of his head, blocking his peripheral vision. He told us that when we do science we should not call upon supernatural explanations.

That was in 1992. At the time, I was unchurched and did not believe in God, but loved science. 6 years later I was born again, and planning on starting graduate school to get a PhD in cellular and molecular biology. Looking back on it now, perhaps Mr Dammers was the first person to put the idea into my mind that it is possible to both be a rigorous scientist and a person of faith at the same time: that science and faith operate in two separate spheres, but can harmoniously coexist.

Because I believe in God, the creator of the universe, I can sympathize with the ideas behind the ID movement. The idea of irreducible complexity is certainly compelling. However, I do have concerns about about attempts to bring faith into science. Likewise, I do not think that such arguments are necessary for faith (at least they were not for me). There are many different ways of knowing. My belief in God is not scientific. Nor do I see my faith bringing explanatory power to science. I believe in God, because I have a personal relationship with Him, I can see His majesty in the beauty of the universe, and I have been persuaded in the inspired, historical accuracy and explanatory power of the Bible. The Bible tells me the truth about who I am: a sinner, who could only be saved by His amazing Grace. At the same time, I am very grateful that God has given me my career in science, which allows me to more deeply appreciate the world He created.


@lm77 Liam, thank you for posting this. I have been wondering, myself, what that meant. However, I hesitated more to post because I did not know what “ELI5” means! I thought it was another fancy term for some sort of project. :smiley:. I found out by Googling. I like being explained to like I’m a 5 year old.

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