Why Science Uses Methodological Naturalism

Sigh. I check the original source, available online (from an article in a Christian magazine), and look for a way in which Dembski’s quote can in any way be construed as an appeal to the authority of Scripture. I find it isn’t, but is placed at the end of a concluding paragraph to a piece mainly about mathematical probablism, speculating about the role of information in the sense of design beyond science, in the field of metaphysics. This conclusion majors on information theory and, finally, adds an allusion to the passage in John to illustrate his conjecture that perhaps being itself is a form of communion.

However, to find the original on Google, I had to wade through three pages of Rationalwiki and subsidiary vulture sources saying that this is Dembski’s definition of Intelligent Design and that it proves ID to be clearly nothing but biblical creationism.

To be honest, it’s that kind of piss-poor abuse of sources that maintains my sympathy for the ID position. And I would have hoped that Christians would do better exegetical work than taking atheist polemical sources at face value. But hey, I’m just a Brit who doesn’t understand how it’s done in America.

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The fact that you can take a Creationist book written specifically to promote Creationism, replace all the instances of “Creationism” with “Intelligent Design” and all the instances of “Creationist” with “Intelligent Design proponent”, and rebrand it as a book promoting ID, proves that ID is nothing more than another kind of Creationism. It’s literally another term for Creationism.

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On the general subject of methodological naturalism, I don’t see any prohibition against positing the involvement of ‘agents’, intelligent or otherwise, in events. This is the basis for much of anthropology. It’s also considered as a possible cause in many fire investigations and roadside accidents.

The area that is ‘too far a step’ for methodological naturalism is connecting an agent or force to the supernatural or philosophical God. That is a jump that I don’t think even philosophy manages.

The issues, in my view, are not whether an unknown agent or force can be invoked or studied but when or under what instances that becomes a reasonable alternative. That judgement has subjective and pragmatic components. Typically, you minimize subjectivity by making the strongest case you can in order to convince others. Pragmatic considerations push for simplicity, clarity, reduced ambiguity and impact.

I’m no more opposed to ID taken at face value than I am with investigating that a fire site uncovered form the ground was made from human encampment. I just don’t think ID has made much of a case for itself in biological evolution.


[quote=“Jon_Garvey, post:55, topic:5441”]
I check the original source, available online (from an article in a Christian magazine),[/quote]

What does that tell you?

[quote=“Jon_Garvey, post:55, topic:5441”]
and look for a way in which Dembski’s quote can in any way be construed as an appeal to the authority of Scripture. I find it isn’t,[/quote]

Of course it is. He’s validating ID by saying explicitly that it’s nothing more than the logos theology of John’s gospel (in, you know, the Bible). He’s assuring the faithful that ID has Biblical warrant. And this is part of the trick that ID leaders pull; they market ID to Christians as Christian theology, and they market ID to non-Christians (and scientists), as science. They don’t say things like “Intelligent design, on the other hand, readily embraces the sacramental nature of physical reality” to scientists. They say that to their congregations.

The article is called “Signs of Intelligence, A Primer on the Discernment of Intelligent Design”. It isn’t about “mathematical probalism”. The preceding paragraph is “The world is a mirror representing the divine life. The mechanical philosophy was ever blind to this fact. Intelligent design, on the other hand, readily embraces the sacramental nature of physical reality”. Then comes the sentence “Intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory”. Mathematical “probalism”, forsooth!


I won’t go that far. It’s absolutely clear that many who promote ID are Special Creationists. It’s also clear that some in the DI, including those int levels controlling funds, are perfectly happy to not rock the boat and alienate Special Creationists. This is their Big Tent problem where actually taking positions to separate the dross from the good (e.g. eliminate young Earth models, support common descent), would suddenly eliminate a lot of current supporters and churches.

But there is a difference. For many it’s a difference without a distinction but for some, it’s a real difference.

But ironically they did! They literally did!

There’s a difference with regard to the very tiny fringe of IDers who are prepared to accept common descent and various forms of “macro-evolution”. And there again the IDers pull their trick. When speaking to the faithful they represent ID as in opposition to evolution, and cite Behe to claim “See, even non-religious scientists accept ID!”. When speaking to the secular world they cite Behe to claim “See, ID can accept common descent and isn’t anti-evolution!”.

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Neither group still assumes that the fever one is sick with is probably due to an evil spirit rather than a bacterial or viral infection. Methodological naturalism, if it means that we must first look for ordinary, natural causes for phenomena, has been extremely successful and fruitful in the scientific endeavor, although it has perverted true science to the extent that it destroys the relentless objectivity true science requires. Such objectivity requires true science to remain open to the fact that there just might be non-material realities. There can be no physical proof that there are no such realities, while the discoveries of modern science have produced compelling evidence that there are indeed such realities – evidence so compelling that they have rendered contemporary atheism (undisciplined, unrestrained methodological naturalism) irrational:

– Modern science now has very well corroborated evidence that the natural universe (time, space, matter and energy) had a beginning. There was once only nothing. From nothing, nothing comes. This simple fact renders it irrational to take the very unscientific position that the universe popped into existence uncaused, from nothingness in terms of the absence of time, space, matter and energy. The rational person must conclude that the natural universe must have been caused by a reality that transcends the natural, that is, by a supernatural reality.

– Modern science now knows that even the simplest reproducing, single-celled life form consists of ultra-sophisticated, digital-information-based nanotechnology the functional complexity of which is light years beyond anything modern science knows how to build from scratch. Again, technology, by definition, is the result of the application of knowledge for a purpose. It is absurd to insist that the most sophisticated technology known to us is the result of mindless accidents, since there is no evidence whatsoever that significant functional complexity can come about mindlessly and accidentally. It is simply irrational to just assume that digital-information-based functional complexity far beyond our own is a mindless accident.

– We now know that the odds of the Big Bang mindlessly and accidentally producing a universe where life was a possibility were one in 10^10^123. (See Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe). The double exponent makes that number so large (it is far greater than the number of elementary particles in the observable universe) that one can have far more certainty that the universe being fine-tuned for life was not a mindless accident than one can have that the laws of physics will continue to apply consistently to nature – notwithstanding the desperate, frantic atheistic reaction to this with the countless universes of “multiverse theory,” for which there is not and cannot be any physical evidence. Scientific observation is restricted to this universe.

Science must be relentlessly objective, rational and realistic to remain true science. Except, I suppose, for those who have all their possessions tied down just in case gravity stops working, it should now be apparent that it is simply irrational to conclude that the universe and the living things within it are mindless accidents, and that there are no non-material realities.

Atheism – undisciplined, unrestrained methodological naturalism – is irrational.

It tells me something similar to what Joshua’s post today, on my Christian website, tells me when he says he’d be happy to pray with sick patients: that in that context, he’s happy to speak as a Christian rather than just as a scientist.

The paragraph you quote, as I observed before, moves the discussion on from what Dembski regards as science to some concluding thoughts on what he regards as metaphysics, and says that in his view the metaphysical foundations of ID are more in accord with Christianity than the “mechanical philosophy” that regards nature as inert and passive. (He is not, note, talking about methodology, whether naturalistic or biblicist, but metaphysics, “by name”).

In that, he’s not alone in suggesting that materialist metaphysics have desacralised nature: Alister McGrath wrote an entire book on that theme (The Re-Enchantment of Nature). Amazon classifies that under “Religious Studies and Philosophy”, though McGrath is a molecular biologist by original training, and that is an appropriate classification, though his motive is to save the ecology from exploitation, not simply to discuss religion.

He critiques materialism (and specifically scientific naturalism), advocates non-mechanical models of nature, quotes Martin Buber on an “I-thou relationship” with nature (being as communion?) and even cites biblical concepts like the Image of God in support. All very much as Dembski does, though of course McGrath is not an ID proponent.

Clearly, McGrath is not writing in a scientific context - though he makes many references to science and scientists. But Touchstone magazine, as far as I know, isn’t a scientific journal either.

It tells you he was speaking to Christians, in a Christian magazine for conservative theology. He was not speaking to secular mathematicians, giving a lecture on probability.

Actually to what he regards as theology. Specifically, “the Logos theology of John’s Gospel”. That’s not metaphysics.

But he says more than that.


I’m glad of your careful distinctions here. I do wonder, though, what mileage there is in criticising ID for whom it includes in its Big Tent when the discussion is taking place in the Big Tent, organisation of BioLogos, which is happy to include some fairly “unusual” theologies under its umbrella without embarrassment. Goose, gander?

By the way, how did this thread get hi-jacked into another endless reinforcement of stereotypes about ID individuals from a remark I made about methodological naturalism in non-scientific disciplines? It looks to me very much like the same attitude as that on the sister thread on Uncommon Descent, only there the grenades are lobbed at theistic evolution, and here at Intelligent Design.

I’m tempted to say a plague on both houses, and return to keep the company of better-tempered camels at The Hump.

Well I would agree this a side track and should be ended. The challenge Jon is that there is an emotionally charged history that many of us, including me, lived through. you call this stereotypes, but my comments were based on knowledge conversation and experience with the I’d movement. I imagine this is befuddling to you, but we are still stuck in a political battle over all this. So sorry for reacting so strongly. I can drop it here. Let’s get back to the main point.

Hi, Jon. Before I jump into this, I should say that I am sympathetic to your concerns, especially in understanding and applying a truly biblical picture of reality. In fact, I may take this even farther than you, in certain respects, but I won’t get into that here, since you and I would be the only interested parties. Suffice it to say that I agree with you and Keener that “supernatural” is not an appropriate category for any of the biblical data. As I’ve said elsewhere on these forums, “supernatural” is a category that would have had no meaning to the original audience. We cannot understand the biblical worldview if we insist on discussing it in terms foreign to the context. But that’s another story…

Don’t get carried away with your own rhetoric. It’s a discussion, not a debate. I read a lot of theology, as I’m sure you do. Giving the impression that Western academia has laid down a rule that theologians must follow MN in their researches (or otherwise rule out the “supernatural” on an a priori basis) is just wrong. If that were the case, there would be no Wrights or Keeners or Bauckhams. (Funny piece, by the way. Thanks.) There are numerous, numerous scholarly journals where theologians study and discuss theology and Scripture and, yes, even history from the perspective of faith. In my opinion, we, as evangelicals, don’t do ourselves any favors when we find Enlightenment bogeymen hiding behind every corner.

Not really a false polarization. Perhaps I misunderstood, but it seemed to me that the thrust of the thread is to ask whether it is legitimate for science, specifically evolutionary science, to adopt MN as its operating principle. To that question, I answer “Yes.”

I want my scientists to explore the material world. I will get my answers on ultimate, spiritual questions from other sources. Our challenge, as Christians, is not to overturn the sciences; it is to provide “the rest of the story” that science leaves out. The things that science is not permitted or able to say – that is our arena. Our job begins where theirs ends, because they have cut their own tongues out of their mouths on the subject of God and spiritual realities. In terms of its explanatory power, science is a one-armed boxer, a bird with one wing. Why should we want to change that? It truly is a quixotic battle that Christians wage with “atheistic science.”

We do agree that the social sciences attempted to adopt many of the methods of the physical sciences, with varying degrees of success. As GJDS pointed out, social sciences (like psychology or sociology) sometimes can create reproducible experiments to test certain theories, but not always. The problem, as I see it, is that MN is not an entirely perfect fit for the social sciences, because they often investigate matters that cannot be tested in a reproducible, controlled environment.

But … what is the alternative? As a practical matter, if we “throw open the windows” and encourage the social sciences to include “supernatural” explanations and conclusions, we have created a bigger problem than we have solved. Swamidass pointed out the problems with that.

The historicity of “supernatural” events can be investigated using the same criteria that historians apply to natural events. What I suggested was that a “supernatural” explanation should only be entertained if natural explanations were insufficient. The problem is not that historians exclude the category from study. A plethora of historians have studied the life of Jesus, for example. The problem is that some historians will not entertain certain conclusions that conflict with their worldview – such as the possibility that a man rose from the dead – and that problem is one of the heart, not one of methodology.

Christianity has not been stripped of its supernatural character. Christian theologians, philosophers, historians, and scientists are not silenced. We are rehashing their published opinions right now. I support the overall approach of MN because it is the best we’ve come up with. I think it is foolish to “throw out the baby with the bathwater” because we, as Christians, disagree with certain of their conclusions. In fact, it is the disagreements that provide us the opportunity to preach the gospel.

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What a poor sport. I showed you were wrong and now you attack me for it.

In looking at your article, the headline reads: “31 great scientists who made scientific arguments for the supernatural”

I looked though the examples you provided, but I do not see any of the examples putting forward scientific arguments for the existence of a deity. I see a lot of proof that they are Christians, but the examples you provide merely show them philosophizing, not putting forward scientific arguments. The Argument from Design is a philosophical argument, not a scientific argument. Science provides the raw materials (data) for the argument, but its conclusion rests on the logic of the argument, not the source of its raw materials. Please set me straight if I have misunderstood.

You also say, “All authorities agree, however, that if you put forward scientific arguments for the existence of a supernatural Deity, then you are violating the principle of methodological naturalism.”

Help me out here. I’m just a layman who wandered in by accident a few days ago. But it seems to me that this statement isn’t correct. I think this would be a more accurate phrasing: “(I)f you put forward scientific arguments for the existence of a supernatural deity, then you are doing philosophy, and the principle of methodological naturalism no longer applies.”

Does that make sense?

Edit: I really don’t think one should capitalize deity, unless referring specifically to the God of the Bible. In that case, you should be honest and replace “supernatural Deity” with “God.”

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Hi Professor Swamidass,

Thank you for your kind response. You wrote:

In science, we are allowed to talk about God in our personal reflections all the time. In our scientific work, the rule in place for good reason I think, and we all benefit from it. I’m glad that I can read scientific papers without regularly encountering Odes to Vishnu, Buddha, or unnamed Middle Eastern religions. I’m happy to leave Jesus out of my scientific papers as a common courtesy to others. Why, exactly, is this rule stifling?

I think there’s a legitimate distinction between references to a particular God or gods (e.g. Odin) and generic references to a Transcendent Creator, which are not tied to any revelation. Even the 31 scientists whom I quoted were in agreement that revelation falls outside the purview of science. But the question of whether the cosmos is the creation of a Being transcending space and time is one which I think scientists (and science in general) should at least attempt to answer. Not to do so sounds to me like a failure of nerve. I would add, of course, that if scientists collectively choose to define their discipline in a way that sidelines such questions, then that’s their decision. But I would also add that a future generation of scientists, with more fortitude, might choose to reverse that decision.

You also wrote:

Also, the 31 examples you give in the paper, only a fraction of them are actually violating MN. Most of them are just commenting personally about their scientific work. This is allowed nowadays already.

Hmm. I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one. Many of the 31 great scientists whom I cited do put forward theological arguments in their scientific works and treatises. And I don’t know of any modern journals that would publish what they wrote on God.

Lastly, you wrote:

I agree that science is a strong epistemological challenge to our faith. How do we know it is true? To this, I look to the Resurrection, as you do also, and my true experience with the Risen Lord. Encountering Him, why do I need more?

If you’ve actually had a personal experience of Christ, then you’ve been truly blessed. Speaking from within my own religious tradition, I would say that most Catholics whom I know haven’t had one, and wouldn’t even expect to have one. Such experiences are viewed as a rare gift.

Re the Resurrection: have you ever read the online articles by John Loftus and Richard Carrier on why they don’t buy the Resurrection story? If you have, then you’ll know how difficult it is to convince atheists and agnostics that it is true. The one big problem, as I see it, is that we don’t have even a written fragment of the Gospels until 120 A.D., and we don’t have a complete set of the Gospels until about 250 A.D. The oldest papyrus of the letters of St. Paul (papyrus 46) dates to around 200 A.D. What that means is that there’s a lot of room for contamination of the original oral reports of eyewitnesses. What exactly did they see? Did they see Jesus in Galilee or Jerusalem? Was He solid or luminous? And who were these eyewitnesses, anyway? Were they women, or Jesus’ apostles? These are legitimate questions that a skeptic might raise. I have of course read the McGrews’ defense of the Resurrection of Jesus, and they do a very good job. But I’m just saying that it’s very easy for a trained debater to cast doubt on the Resurrection. If that were my only or even my main ground for belief in God, then I would be worried.

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Joshua, taking your points in order, I agree that one should have a good reason to ‘coin a new term’. However, my tract (on the link http://www.albertleo.com/scireligion.pdf) was targeted to Adult Confirmation classes consisting mostly of young folks with no more than a high school education–not the more highly educated participants in the BioLogos Forum. I thought the class would comprehend the term “procedural atheism” better than “methodological naturalism”. Perhaps I was wrong, but even the participants in this Forum thread do not seem entirely in agreement with the implications of the latter, more sophisticated term.

Secondly, in the matter of “scientifically intractable gaps”, I am comfortable with the position I took in the aforementioned tract. I have been fairly close to the research on the possible abiotic conditions on this planet that could have led to formation of the first living organisms. (I was a lab-mate with Stanley Miller while he was working with Harold Urey in some of the earliest abiotic chemistry experiments, and this induced me to follow that field since.) Science may propose reasonable possibilities of how God accomplished it, but proving the _precise chemical steps–_I doubt it.

As to the second ‘probable gap’, the sudden appearance of humankind (a Great Leap Forward) from a species that had been around for many millennia–the non-scientific explanation is that their brains were somehow ‘programmed.’ Thus humankind’s future course is now dictated by evolution, both in the Biosphere (Darwinian, and largely by chance), and, of even greater importance, in the Noosphere (Lamarkian, and largely teleologically). Am I mistaken in thinking that this, if true, is of great significance in the matter of ‘reconciling’ Christian Faith with evolution–the past advances in life forms due to ‘a throw of the dice’ Darwinian evolution now being supplanted in humankind by a purpose-driven evolution from changes in brain circuitry resulting from lived experience. I would give it about 50/50 odds that during the next century science will find some epigenetic mechanisms that could feasibly be responsible for such a programming of brain–>mind. But even if true, you are entirely right, Joshua–we should look to Jesus, not to science, for confident faith.
Comments, anyone?
Al Leo

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Hi Jay,

Re capitalization: I think it would be rash and impious not to capitalize the name of the One in Whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28), even if He were to us an unknown God. A transcendent Creator of any stripe deserves capitalization.

You write:

The Argument from Design is a philosophical argument, not a scientific argument. Science provides the raw materials (data) for the argument, but its conclusion rests on the logic of the argument, not the source of its raw materials.

As I see it, the Argument from Design is both philosophical and scientific. Don’t forget that until the 1830s, scientists referred to themselves as natural philosophers.

The real question, as I see it, is whether in reasoning from design in the empirical world to the existence of a transcendent Designer (Whom I’m happy to call God), scientists need to make use of any premises which are extrinsic to science. By “extrinsic to science,” I mean premises which a scientist could freely deny without in any way hindering or undermining the scientific enterprise.

As far as I can tell, even the “metaphysical” premises of the Design Argument are premises which a practicing scientist could not afford to call into question. Take, for instance, the premise that an infinite regress of explanations is no explanation at all, and that we must therefore stop somewhere, in our demand for an explanation. [This is not to be confused with the much more controversial claim that time must have had a beginning.] This premise is required to refute the suggestion that we might live in a “Russian doll” cosmos: an infinite series of universes, each embedded in a larger one. To you, the impossibility of an infinite regress of explanations might sound like a purely philosophical premise, but I think it’s one which scientists are committed to, as well. Dawkins, funnily enough, invokes it to support atheism, in his “Ultimate 747” argument: who designed the Designer? I think his argument wrongly assumes that designers have to exhibit the same kind of complexity as the products they generate, but I don’t disagree with the scientific legitimacy of his appeal to the principle.

There are, of course, some arguments for God’s existence which are purely philosophical, such as the contingency argument. The design argument is a special and interesting case.

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