Methodological naturalism revisited

When countering anti-evolutionary views such as those put forth by the intelligent design (ID) movement, anti-ID commentators often refer to “methodological naturalism” as a “ground rule” of science.

I’m not entirely happy with this, but I don’t see any great problem either — provided we think of this “ground rule” as a pragmatic rule, not an a priori straightjacket on investigation.

We like to stick with methods that have a good prospect of working, judged according to our present knowledge of how the world actually works. We may be wrong. Hence anyone — such as any of the ID philosophers — is welcome to propose doing things differently, but the scientific community needs a damn good reason to depart from its tried and true methods. Whining about exclusion is not sufficient. But on the other hand, if the ID people were able to demonstrate that their way of doing things allowed us to learn a good deal more about the world, well, our methods are not set in stone and we’d have to change them.

So far ID has no signs of success in this direction, and I would guess a snowballs chance in hell of ever getting anywhere. So I wish they’d stop whining.

Still, I worry when anti-ID commentators give the impression that “methodological naturalism” is something set in stone, or that it jumps out of a philosophical hat without being connnected to real-world reasons concerning what works. When that happens, ID-sympathetic philosophers correctly object that it looks like we’re offering up an arbitrary prejudice as if it defined science (sez who?) and enforcing it by what boils down to force rather than argument.

I would prefer that we were more careful not to give them such an opportunity.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University