More on Methodological Naturalism

Continuing the discussion from Video trailer for the Crossway Theistic Evolution book:

One of the most disconcerting parts of that video occurs about halfway through when Stephen Meyer states, “methodological naturalism is a convention that says that we must formulate theories about the world as if it were true that nature acting on its own can produce everything that we see.”

I don’t have nearly the understanding of these issues that many on this forum do, and I’m not certain that I understand what Meyer is trying to say, but this statement seems grossly misleading. I’ve understood methodological naturalism to mean practicing science in a way that constrains the field of inquiry to natural causes. And I thought it was just about universally accepted that this constraint is essential to the success of science. To wit, if every fourth-grader doing experiments about gravity had to conduct the exercises with the caveat, “and of course it’s possible that some supernatural force is making these objects fall…,” then learning about science wouldn’t proceed very rapidly.

Meyer appears to be appending to this practical concern a philosophical concern that doesn’t belong. To me, this is disconcerting but also ironic. One of the most helpful things I read when I first started digging into science and faith issues was an interview with Alvin Plantinga that helped me understand how many popularizers of science add a “naturalistic spin” to their presentation. It wasn’t hard for me appreciate the difference between the practice of methodological naturalism in science and the extraneous philosophical naturalism through which some (presumably non-theists) understand science. Is Meyer saying that the two are identical or inextricably wed, thereby re-injecting the naturalistic spin from the other side of the ideological spectrum?

Returning to the fourth-graders, I don’t see how learning about gravitational force (or other natural forces) precludes the possibility that forces apart from the natural world could also exist. And I doubt that many actual fourth-graders reach that conclusion.

So, am I missing something here? Is Meyer saying something different than I am understanding? Is methodological naturalism a more complicated and nuanced matter than I’ve so far comprehended?

I know this general topic has been discussed at length, but I hope some will be willing to re-engage with it, particularly in response to Meyer’s quote.



It’s a bit hard to say exactly what was meant in such a video with edited quotes and no context. I’d presume he meant “scientific theories about the world”, and if so, do you still see any major difference between the quote and “practicing science in a way that constrains the field of inquiry to natural causes”?

Unfortunately, these types of discussions often break down into how one defines one word or another. What is natural? For the practice of science, nature is what you can empirically measure and observe, and there is usually an expectation that these measurements and observations will be consistent from person to person which is often described as repeatability. A natural process is one that produces empirically measurable and observable effects. In my opinion, you can replace “nature” with “empirically measurable” in the description of science.

The constraints within the scientific method (i.e. methodological naturalism) are usually focused on empiricism. You base hypotheses on known empirical measurements, and then you predict what the empirical observations will be in a given experiment. Your hypothesis then stands or falls based on those observations. You can go through the entire scientific method without needing a pronouncement that this or that is “natural”, or that this or that was excluded because it is “supernatural”.

There are also some ancillary philosophies within science whose worth can be argued, and often are argued. For example, reductionism is a popular approach to doing science. This is where you simplify a complex system down to a few parts and try to extrapolate to the whole from the simplified model, and this process is an extension of Mechanistic philosophies.

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I’m sorry but if we had evidence that ETs existed and influenced the past history of life on Earth, the study of these phenomena would not be off-limits to “methodological naturalism”. It’s not that science is artificially confined to the study of “purely natural” mechanisms, it’s that science can’t determine whether any particular event resulted from the direct influence of God. Science can readily study mechanisms and situations where there are regular or apparent cause-effect relationships that follow a consistent pattern. There are many branches of science that study the effects of ‘intelligent agents’ all the time.

The issue is actually that it’s hard to make the positive case for an intelligent designer acting deliberately in the course of biological evolution and the history of Earth. There isn’t even orthogonal, independent evidence like rocket scorch marks, buried monoliths, radio transmissions or other possible indicators that an intelligent manipulator was ever present on Earth, besides humans. We find artifacts of intelligent agents (humans) all over the place in archaeological digs. So we can say that at certain times and places, some objects we find in the digs had been manipulated by an intelligent agent (humans). This is not the case for the Intelligent Designer proposed by the ID community. It’s not that methodological naturalism is made metaphysically incapable of ‘detecting design’ or evaluating the cases where a designer might have acted. The ID community has simply not found a good, positive case for the existence of their Intelligent Designer or identified specific cases where appealing to a Designer makes better sense.

And it’s not like we can’t find clear evidence that some intelligent ‘designer’ has been at work with at least some of Earth’s species. We’ve got clear evidence animals and plant species have clearly been manipulated over time by humans (domestication). But what about other organisms possibly created or modified by the Intelligent Designer? Well, that One must have operated in a much less obvious manner.

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Well, try flipping his notion onto the other side. You are worried about doing good science… which is what he wants you to talk about.

But what he’s also trying to do is push BioLogos into a corner where it spends more time defending science than telling the world that you can believe in God’s involvement in the Cosmos … be a committed Christian … and still accept the truth of evolutionary evidence as seen by your own eyes.

It is not an either/or proposition… as though they were arguing with a bunch of atheists here at BioLogos … (excuse me, you in the back, you can put your hand down for a while).

As the word gets out that BioLogos loves science … and God … the choice for the younger generations will become more and more obvious!

I think I do see a difference, but I don’t know that I can articulate it in such a way that is any more constructive. Maybe it is the phrase “nature acting on its own can produce” that is bothering me. It seems to assign some teleological agency to “nature” that doesn’t belong in a discussion of how scientific theories are formulated. The presence, absence, or characteristics of such agency strikes me (decidedly not a practicing scientist) as an interesting philosophical consideration but irrelevant to the quotidian work of science.

I should also add that one reason I’m trying to generate discussion of this again is that I’ve recently read through some of Johnson’s Defeating Darwinism. (For those who have been following my story on the homeschool forum, I’m trying to find time to give an update there, but for now my son is not reading the book but is still sitting in class during the weekly discussions.) I’ve only read the introduction and the first two chapters or so, and my wife currently has the book, but one thing that stood out was Johnson using the term “naturalism” without any qualifiers. Since the distinction between philosophical and methodological naturalism has been crucial for me as I’ve considered science and faith matters the past few years, I found Johnson’s broad attack on naturalism lacking in nuance and unfair. But I do want to read the rest of the book to see where he goes with his arguments. If anyone here has read it, I’d appreciate reading your thoughts on how he addresses “naturalism.”

This (and everything else in your message) is really helpful. Thank you. And please be patient with me as I try to engage with your replies. I just don’t have the time to compose messages with the frequency that several people here do.

I think it’s pretty hard to say with a quote with no context as was presented there. There’s probably not a strong reason to say it that way out of context, but I would tend to think he had reason in context. Technically, it seems correct, for two reasons. First, if you deliberately do not consider supernatural explanations, then you are left with natural explanations for whatever question you are considering. Second, his use of the phrase “as if it were true” makes clear that such an approach is not synonymous with truth. I imagine in context he was explaining MN by making a comparison with the possibility of considering supernatural explanations for “everything that we see.” The statement is consistent with my understanding (also decidedly not a scientist, practicing or not :slight_smile: ) of MN, but as I’ve said the format makes it hard to tell absolutely what was intended.

I agree the distinction is a big one. Lumping both viewpoints into one suggests an insufficient consideration of the issue or worse. To be charitable, I suppose it could be poorly labeled commentary about philosophical naturalism. This book may not be going on my reading list to make sure though :slight_smile:

As you have stated elsewhere, there is a difference between philosophical (aka ontological) naturalism and methodological naturalism. In the method of science there is an important concept called parsimony. This is also known as Occam’s Razor, or “the explanation with the fewest assumptions is the best explanation”. It is important to note that this is a rule, and it doesn’t claim to make any truth statements in a philosophical manner.

With respect to the specifics of your post, if scientists find that observations are consistent with a natural process then they conclude that the natural process is probably the cause. Philosophically, it is entirely possible that there is some other process in effect, but methodologically the rule of parsimony favors natural processes that match the evidence.

In my experience, the scientific method really isn’t about excluding supernatural causes from the practice of science. Rather, there isn’t any way that supernatural causes can be included in the scientific method. The scientific method requires you to predict what observations a process will produce, and supernatural causes don’t seem amenable to such predictions. In my opinion, if people are going to complain that supernatural causes are not being included in science, then they need to show how they can be included, and how our understanding of functioning universe can be improved by this inclusion.

On top of that, it also gets a bit complicated if you try to create a dichotomy between the natural and supernatural. This whole discussion/debate can get really convoluted because different people come to the table with different preconceptions and different views of both the natural and supernatural. There are atheists and theists who view the supernatural as something that runs counter to nature, and then there are both atheists and theists who accept the view that God can work through nature and not against it. I think we run the risk of missing very important and nuanced arguments and ideas if we try to unnecessarily force everyone into these preconceived boxes and definitions. We humans like our black and white categories, and sometimes it is to our detriment.

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I started to post this separately, but as it relates to this post, will link this blog from the always thoughtful RJS here:

One of her statements from the blog:
"But we don’t refute this view by denying science. When a Christian approaches science – from evolutionary biology to cosmology – the goal is not to look for evidence against philosophical naturalism, but to understand the “natural” means used to achieve God’s purpose.

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Thank you @jpm. Who is the author of this Blog, Insights from Thomas [A]?

The argument against philosophical naturalism comes from a different direction. The atheist or agnostic denies the existence of God and the purpose inherent in his creation.

The atheist begins with the assumption that God does not exist and argues from that basis.

This purpose is revealed, not in “ontic discontinuities,” but through relationship and interaction. Scripture is a record of God’s interaction with his creation. Perhaps the purpose is also written into our consciousness in the moral law and search for meaning – something worth thinking about anyway. This purpose is witnessed through the missional life lived walking in the Spirit – through a life lived with love of God and love of others as central focus.

The purpose of God and God’s design of the universe is found not in theory, but in life and in living. Christianity is truly “scientific” because it is practical, the practice of goodness and love.

If life is good it must have been created by a God Who is good, and not by random pointless Nature. If life is random and pointless than life is irrational and evil.

Aside: This writer seems to be agreeing with Dembski who is ID. However I have observed that scientists object to teleology or the kind of design advocated by Thomas and Aristotle. It appears that someone needs to clarify this issue, because either God is the Designer, but not in the way Aristotle and Thomas envision or Aristotle and Thomas were right on target and science is totally mistaken, which seems unlikely.

The author (RJS) writes the blog and it is usually also hosted by by Scot McKnight on his blog on Patheos. She has some great book reviews and insights. I think she make a reasoned response here that acknowledges why ID is attractive yet comes back to her statement,"The presence of God is seen not in the empirical phenomena of nature, but in the purpose behind those phenomena. "

In any case, an enjoyable read.

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A better way to put it is that the scientific evidence is not consistent with teleological design. That isn’t to say that there isn’t some teleological design going on, only that it doesn’t show up in observations or experiments. If a scientist is speaking about the science, then there is no evidence of teleological design. However, there is nothing stopping a scientist from believing that there is teleological design.

[quote=“T_aquaticus, post:13, topic:37858”]
A better way to put it is that the scientific evidence is not consistent with teleological design.

Objectively that is not true. The evidenced indicates that universe and the earth is designed to produce life. It is called the anthropic principle.

The evidence also indicates that the universe and Earth are also designed to produce quartz crystals. It is called the quartz principle.

Excuse me for trying to understand her point.

So, what is the purpose behind these phenomena?

Is she critical of ID because ID seems to look for God in the empirical phenomena of nature?

Good morning Roger,
I think that you are right, and she is saying you cannot find proof of God in science, which as I understand it, is the basic premise of the ID movement, but rather in faith. By the way, I can’t remember her name, but she is a prof as I recall at a Christian affiliated university. I assume that since the blog is a side gig, she really does not want her name spread, though like most of us leaves enough bread crumbs to make it pretty easy to find


Good afternoon Phil,

The question is whether purpose in nature can be discerned scientifically. I would think that that it can. For instance science has established the anthropic principle which says that the universe was created for the purpose of creating a home for humans and other creatures.

I have noticed that the4 most prominent ID’ers on BioLogos are followers of Thomas, so I suspect that ID is closer to Thomas than they are to her observation that evidence for God is found not in the phenomena, but in the purpose behind them.

I do not use the word proof with God. Clearly it is impossible to prove God’s existence beyond the shadow of a doubt and this is in part by design. On the other hand like most puzzles there is evidence on both sides of the question. It is valid to say that evidence for one side is stronger than the other, but that there is no evidence or proof on one side or the other.

I was curious about her name because I thought that I had somehow missed it, but she is entitled to her privacy. .

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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