Why Science Uses Methodological Naturalism

Yes, that is exactly my point, but you made it in a much clearer and pointed way, so thanks

Indeed, Merv. Dr. Garvey has corrupted quite a few folks, including myself (at least to some extent). Your post goes quite a bit beyond mine, and I think your points are very well taken. In fact we cannot know what is “out there” until do. And I do think that the timing and method by which we get that knowledge is entirely in God’s hands.

Hi Eddie,
Let me start out by stating that I really like your approach to the intersection of science and faith, aiming to appreciate modern science while remaining committed to historical continuity concerning core Christian doctrines. I think that your posts are always written very thoughtfully and I have learned new things from them. Nonetheless, something has been nagging at me which I would like to point out.

Something which, I presume, has become tiresome for the regulars here (if I may be so bold to speak on behalf of others) is that a very large fraction of your posts center on rants criticizing the position of “some EC folks” or “some EC leaders”. Now, I ask, is that really a necessary and/or fruitful practice? Most of us have become very familiar with that point of yours. But no one seems to feel compelled to actually defend the views against which you are rearing yourself. Since this is a place of dialogue, wouldn’t it be better to discuss the positions which are actually being represented by people here right now? Without the participation of an actual representative of the critiqued position, you’re bound to end up combatting straw men.

In other words, I would suggest that it might be more constructive for the conversation overall if you were aiming your responses directly at the thoughts and beliefs expressed by people on the Forum, rather than criticizing the rather elusive category of “some ECs”. I want to repeat that I generally like your contributions, this is just something I had on my heart to say.

Your brother in Christ,


I remember back in school physics how we were able to prove pretty well any theory on the basis of a graph through one point and the origin!

I’m doing some modelling right now and I’m frustrated that the points seem to come out right in the middle of two possible scenarios.

Not long ago, when trying to determine the number of modification sites in a protein, experiments indicated 1.5 sites.

That was frustrating but expected. It aligns perfectly in with my proof of God via Ironic Design.

That is: It is highly improbable that a designer would leave ambiguous, non-objectively discernible marks on its creation. Similarly, it is improbable that a purely natural, designer-less universe would leave ambiguous marks behind. Considering the great difficulty in demonstrating the existence or non-existence of a designer throughout the ages, this leaves one to conclude: The universe was designed so as to make the certainty of a designer completely indeterminable.

Case in point: The mass of the Higgs boson. Theories suggested two likely mass ranges for the boson; a lower number, compatible with supersymmetry models, and a higher number, compatible with multi-universe theories. The European Large Hadron Collider experiments converged on a mass for the Higgs Boson almost perfectly in the middle, a mass where the field expects the universe to be unstable.

Ironic Design: Because the designer has a sense of humor.


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@Argon Your post is funny, but also, I believe profoundly true. It might be worth compiling a list of such examples. (BTW, I am finding the same thing with model gene regulatory networks, and always used to find it in my genetic experiments, where the answer could have so easily been unambiguous, and almost never was).

This is very close to Pascal’s position…

If it is a sign of weakness to prove God by nature, do not despise Scripture; if it is a sign of strength to have known these contradictions, esteem Scripture.


We know God only by Jesus Christ. Without this mediator, all communion with God is taken away; through Jesus Christ we know God. All those who have claimed to know God, and to prove Him without Jesus Christ, have had only weak proofs. But in proof of Jesus Christ we have the prophecies, which are solid and palpable proofs. And these prophecies, being accomplished and proved true by the event, mark the certainty of these truths and, therefore, the divinity of Christ. In Him, then, and through Him, we know God. Apart from Him, and without the Scripture, without original sin, without a necessary mediator promised and come, we cannot absolutely prove God, nor teach right doctrine and right morality. But through Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ, we prove God, and teach morality and doctrine. Jesus Christ is, then, the true God of men.

Bonhoeffer also writes…

A god who let us prove his existence would be an idol.

I think I am Pascalian. Maybe @argon is too?

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Methodological naturalism is generally understood as a methodological approach to the study of nature, and most often it is an outlook that excludes all but natural (and in practical terms) and material objects from study.

The techniques and maths involved are secondary to MN - the ultimate expression of MN is eliminative materialism.

The greatest objection to MN imo is the fact that we human beings can perform methodological studies on objects of nature, since we bring to our studies our beliefs and outlooks, while we are composed of the very substance that makes up the objects we study.

One more announcement. VJ Torley tells me he is planning on posting here when he gets a chance (hopefully tomorrow). I’m very glad to hear this. Please be respectful of him in this dialogue. He has been consistently a respectful dialogue partner, and I hope that we can reciprocate.

Also, @Jon_Garvey thanks for posting a kind comment on the Uncommon Descent article.

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I suspect you’ve just rediscoved my Important Scientific Law known as the Principle of the Conservation of Oddity, which I described in a Serious Medical Journal back in 1981. “Ironic Design” might be an equally good description.

More seriously, I’ve been musing in the last few days on what one might expect to see in providential design in nature, starting from the way that the traditional doctrine of diviene providence has always been seen to work out in human affairs and so on, rather than from human models of design.

The answer is, pretty much the “It’s design, Jim, but not as we know it” character of your protein outcome. Take a biblical example, like God’s clear intention to send Paul to Rome to witness to Caesar in Acts. In a simple Universe, Paul would have bought a ticket and gone, with the clear endorsement of the Church. In God’s economy, prophecies warned him not to go, arrest and imprisonment was the means by which he got his passage to Italy, and the ship was wrecked on the way (a shipwreck surrounded by signs of God’s providence and sovereignty).

In nature, it seems, the ends are obvious - natural theology has always seen beauty and wisdom in the things created. But the means - like the means of God’s Kingdom coming - are strangely convoluted. “Just as the (theological) theory predicted”, maybe?

But the point to note is that, in providence, God has never been thought to be trying to confuse people or hide his presence. Rather “his ways are higher than ours” - there were reasons for every event in Paul’s itinerary, as millions of sound sermons on those passages in Acts down the millennia demonstrate.

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“Regression to the mean” has often sent me off on investigations lasting weeks until I confirmed that the initial number were statistical flukes. And I was lucky. Many people publish papers before they find out. That’s one of the major sources of irreproducibility for papers.

Maybe it’s a corollary to the notion. See also, ‘jelly side down’.

I don’t know. Personally, I think Pascal was one of the first philosophers who could also write well. So many couldn’t get a simple point across to save their lives.

I also think this quote by James Tour (one of the ID heroes) is great…

I have been labeled as an Intelligent Design (ID) proponent. I am not. I do not know how to use science to prove intelligent design although some others might. I am sympathetic to the arguments on the matter and I find some of them intriguing, but the scientific proof is not there, in my opinion. So I prefer to be free of that ID label. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaise_Pascal), one of the finest scientists, mathematicians and inventors that the world has ever enjoyed, and also among the most well-respected and deepest thinking Christian apologists, wrote in his Pensees 463,

“It is a remarkable fact that no canonical [biblical] author has ever used nature to prove God. They all try to make people believe in him. David, Solomon, etc., never said: ‘There is no such thing as a vacuum, therefore God exists.’ They must have been cleverer than the cleverest of their successors, all of whom have used proofs from nature. This is very noteworthy.’”

As Kreeft (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Kreeft) points out in his commentary on Pascal’s Pensees,

“If the Scripture does not use nature to prove God, it can’t be the best strategy. Notice that Pascal does not say that there are no good proofs of God or that none of them begin with data from nature. Elsewhere, he specifies merely that such proofs are psychologically weak, but he does not say they are logically weak. More important, they are salvifically weak, [meaning that] they will not save us. If nature proved God clearly, we would not have to search for him with all our hearts.”

Pascal further writes in his Pensees 429 ,

“This is what I see that troubles me: Nature has nothing to offer me that does not give rise to doubt and anxiety; if there is a God supporting nature, she should unequivocally proclaim him, and that, if the signs in nature are deceptive, they should be completely erased; that nature should say all or nothing so that I could see what course I ought to follow.”

Though 350 years since Pascal penned his dilemma, as a modern-day scientist, I do not know how to prove ID using my most sophisticated of analytical tools. I share Pascal’s frustration. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if, when scientists had obtained the first molecular resolution images of human DNA, it had self-assembled (a thermodynamic process) into the Hebrew script to say, “The God of Heaven and Earth was here.”? But it did not, and I suppose that the wonder would have elicited no love from the skeptic anyway. Therefore, God seems to have set nature as a clue, not a solution, to keep us yearning for him.

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That just nails it. ID doesn’t even get out of the starting gate.

@Eddie[quote=“Jonathan_Burke, post:24, topic:5441”]
That just nails it. ID doesn’t even get out of the starting gate.

I agree. And I think I also agree with Tour that [quote=“Swamidass, post:23, topic:5441”]
I am sympathetic to the arguments on the matter and I find some of them intriguing

Perhaps this is the key issue with ID, and I would like to see Eddie’s thoughts on this. In some areas, like abiogenesis, ID might have a point (or not) and the general idea of design may not be wrong (although I think calling it intelligent is an insult to God, but thats another issue), and certainly some ID folks are not total evolution deniers, BUT, lets remember some history.

Whether intentional or not, ID sprang upon the scene as a SCIENTIFIC alternative to creation pseudoscience and evolutionary biology. And the rationale, at least as it seemed to me, and other biologists, was to allow the teaching of an alternative to Darwin in science classes. That is the failure of ID. It could be a wonderful philosophical idea, or even a theological one (although I personally dont think so) but it simply fails the test of what we call science based on our current usage of MN.

Could that change? Possibly, going back to the discussion of pushing the boundaries of MN and the definition of science. But that is the future, not now, and for now, my own view is that the DI should simply give up all the sciency sounding stuff and stick to the philosophical arguments for design. A modest proposal indeed.


Here’s another thought to consider. Science is not the only academic discipline to insist more or less firmly on methodological naturalism.

Sociology does, for example, so that investigation of the supernatural experiences of people (“supernatural” not the category I like, but the most comprehensible to make the point here) - such experiences must be interpreted naturalistically in the literature.

Likewise historians have a strong tradition of excluding the supernatural by methodological necessity as ahistorical. For history only studies the kind of events events that are known to occur in the common experience. This has significance because it applies not only to reports of miracles in Augustine or Bede, but par excellence in the field of biblical studies, which consider themselves to be guilds of specialised historians. Jesus’s miracles, or his resurrection, are not the stuff of academic history, and therefore not a subject for empirical study - hence all those distinctions between the “Jesus of history” and the “Jesus of faith.”

Accordingly, since the miracles are claimed as actual events, not simply as “beliefs”, then methodological naturalism also extends to theology: we cannot do theology on the basis that God actually acts in the world (because the historians, sociologists and scientists deal with the empirical world, and don’t do the supernatural. And theology depends on biblical studies, which are historical disciplines).

It seems, then, that not only physical sciences, but all empirical fields, have the same insistence on methodological naturalism in the Academy. So my question is, are these academic disciplines any less justified than the physical sciences in sharing their methodological naturalism. And if so, why, other than the assumed right of practitioners to decide their proper boundaries?

One can, of course, argue that it enables these disciplines to be pursued on an equal footing by those of all faiths and none. Theology shouldn’t, after all, be the domain only of the religious…

Sy, I don’t quite agree about the origins by I do concur with your assessment. I think ID sprang out of a response to ‘materialism’. At least that’s what many of the founders suggested. Even Philip Johnson noted that if ‘non-materialistic’ science (or ID) proved fruitful then questions like the age of the Earth would also come under review. Johnson repeatedly said that he took no position about the Earth’s age. See here.

There was no attempt made at distinguishing creationist pseudoscience. This was part of the ‘open tent’ strategy. One can see the approach in the testimony of many witnesses for ID who either refused to state their beliefs about the age of the Earth or demurred about having an opinion during Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial.

Ted Davis outlined some of the problems with the ‘big tent’ approach previously. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, ID must perform critical evaluations to discern which of its ideas are good and which should be discarded. All robust sciences do this. All robust sciences at their start have profound, passionate arguments about their subjects. However, at least until now, that work has been studiously avoided within ID. It refuses to draw lines within its sphere of support.

Science must be rational and relentlessly objective to remain science. It must follow the evidence wherever it leads regardless of its religious/philosophical implications. Christians have nothing to fear by true science taking this approach as it must to remain true science, because we know that the Author of nature is also the Author of true religion and truth itself, so any apparent conflicts between true science, religion and philosophy will ultimately be resolved; God is the Author of nature, true religion and correct philosophy.

Intelligence is a known reality. It can be a causal factor in a given phenomenon coming into being, just like other known realities. Sometimes this is undisputed, as in everyone accepting that technology only emerges through the activity of intelligent agents. This is because technology, by definition, is the application of knowledge for a purpose. Some phenomena can only arise via the application of knowledge. For example, it is beyond the capacity of the combination of chance and laws of physics to mindlessly and accidentally produce a fully programmed computer given only the limited probabilistic resources provided by a Universe that is only 13.8 billion years old and consisting of a finite amount of matter that could have only produced a finite number of events – nowhere near enough to mindlessly and accidentally generate something like Microsoft Windows running on an Intel-like box, or anything close to that.

The self-evident fact is that intelligent agency – whatever the nature of the agent, human or incorporeal – is necessary for technology to come about. Life is ultra-sophisticated, self-replicating, digital information-based nanotechnology that is light years beyond anything modern science knows how to build from scratch, and is far more unlikely to come about mindlessly and accidentally than is a computer. Mathematics, not Biblical belief, assures us of this.

ID is the last remaining instance of true science uncorrupted by methodological naturalism. Science perverted by methodological naturalism abandons the relentless objectivity true science requires. There just might be realities other than material realities. There is no evidence and can be no physical evidence that there are no non-material realities. There just might be incorporeal intelligent agents. Not wanting to accept that that is a possibility doesn’t prove it isn’t so.

ID remains true science, in accordance with those who created the modern scientific method. Methodological naturalism corrupts true science by its rejection of relentless objectivity in favor of a philosophical view. ID accepts the fact that technology only comes about via intelligent agency.

This is an excellent question.

In my opinion, any community of discourse (e.g. history, biology, arts, literature) is allowed to adopt Methodological Naturalism (MN) as a rule. Basically, any group can define itself however it likes. However, in adopting MN that community forfeits the right to make any pronouncements about God, God’s action, or God’s existence. To do otherwise would be to “beg the question” in obviously circular reasoning.

Case in point is the Jesus Seminar, that tried to understand Jesus starting from the assumption of no miracles or supernatural reality. Starting from that assumption, they necessarily conclude that Jesus was just a man and did not perform any miracles, and did not rise from the dead. This is their “best account of Jesus, assuming God was not involved.” The absurdity ensues when anyone tries to take their pronouncements as evidence that Jesus was not God incarnate. This is just absurd. By adopting MN, they cannot pronounce anything outside their discourse about God. Period.

So MN is never the real problem. The real problem is when communities of discourse adopt MN as a rule, but then hide it, so as to make authoritative pronouncements against God. In contrast, when MN is openly adopted, as it is in science today, it is useful and harmless.

Now regarding MN in history, this appears to be the rule according. In this, I stand in awe of NT Wrights deft rhetorical ability to operate in history to make the case for the Resurrection. http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Historical_Problem.htm Of course, He is wise enough not to insist his argument be included in public school history courses (which is what ID did with their arguments in science). If he did that, he might actually get kicked out of history, quite in the same way as did ID.


“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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