Methodological naturalism

Let me put in a plug for Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, and Johan Braeckman’s paper in Foundations of Science, “How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical misconceptions about Methodological Naturalism.” Here’s the abstract:

In recent controversies about Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC), the principle of methodological naturalism (MN) has played an important role. In this paper, an often neglected distinction is made between two different conceptions of MN, each with its respective rationale and with a different view on the proper role of MN in science. According to one popular conception, MN is a self-imposed or intrinsic limitation of science, which means that science is simply not equipped to deal with claims of the supernatural (Intrinsic MN or IMN). Alternatively, we will defend MN as a provisory and empirically grounded attitude of scientists, which is justified in virtue of the consistent success of naturalistic explanations and the lack of success of supernatural explanations in the history of science. (Provisory MN or PMN). Science does have a bearing on supernatural hypotheses, and its verdict is uniformly negative. We will discuss five arguments that have been proposed in support of IMN: the argument from the definition of science, the argument from lawful regularity, the science stopper argument, the argument from procedural necessity, and the testability argument. We conclude that IMN, because of its philosophical flaws, proves to be an ill-advised strategy to counter the claims of IDC. Evolutionary scientists are on firmer ground if they discard supernatural explanations on purely evidential grounds, instead of ruling them out by philosophical fiat.

A number of us involved in criticizing intelligent design, including myself, have been disagreeing with the common objection to ID that alleges that a supernatural claim is out of bounds for science. Boudry et al. deepen and develop this disagreement further, and do a great job showing exactly what is going wrong here.

Full paper: on Springer (needs subscription), or final draft (free).

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • DM

    not quite samantha with her *supernatural spit*, eh?

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    blasphemy is a DEATH SENTENCE

    you people actually BELIEVE the BS you preach!

    GOD 1 – atheists 0



    Repent and turn to God or be destroyed…


    my interpretation of the STATUE FIRE… it symbolizes the SPIRITUAL DEATH of atheism…,0,4295974.story–005.jpg




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    for a sample taste of PZ Myers' GARBAGE…




    what happens when you LOSE Pascal's Wager…



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    they tried to BULLDOZE the entire METAPHYSICAL DIMENSION…

    they LOST THE WAR……

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    material world, as you WISHED…

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    degenerates (PZ) or children (HEMANT) – ATHEISTS!

    do you have anything to say, you STUPID LITTLE F*CKER?

    how about I tell you, Mr. Shermer, EVERYTHING YOU THINK ABOUT THE WORLD is


    THE BOOBQUAKE – 911!



    the 9th and FINAL RING of Dante's Inferno is designed for little blaspheming traitors like you…

    "This is the deepest level of hell, where the fallen angel Satan himself resides. His wings flap eternally, producing chilling cold winds that freeze the thick ice found in Cocytus…"

    but at least FREE AIR CONDITIONING is included!

  • J

    What a great article, and about time!

    Yes, the knowledge arts can, and should, test supernatural claims when there is any inference to interacting with the observable universe.

    If someone wants to make a claim about a supernatural entity interacting with the physical world; fine present the evidence meeting the standards of physics accepted by reputable physics publications.

    If someone wants to make a claim about a supernatural entity interacting in the historical record; fine present the evidence meeting the standards of history accepted by reputable historical publications.

    If you can, then hey, we're listening. MN is simply a well proven short-cut. I use it, I'd be foolish not to based on a vast body of data. But, if you want me to ignore that short-cut, it's going to take a compelling amount of evidence. I'd flip in a NY minute if it was presented, but don't expect me to get out of my chair for the occasional anecdote.

    By the way that criteria isn't just for supernatural explanations. If a purely naturalistic anecdote which would cast doubt on a well documented explanation of a phenomenon were presented, they would get the same reaction: Show me the evidence.

    But, that has always been one of the things that has truly annoyed me about super-naturalists. When you give them exactly equal treatment, they whine about being treated unfairly. They have a feeling of entitlement that their success rate doesn't warrant.

  • RichardW

    Thanks for that, Taner. I've been making the same arguments myself for years informally, so it's nice to have a paper that makes them thoroughly, and to which I can refer supporters of IMN. I've previously used the terms "a priori MN" and "rule-of-thumb MN" to refer to IMN and PMN respectively. Unfortunately, in some discussions I've followed between supporters and critics of IMN, the term MN (simpliciter) has been used to refer to both positions, leading to considerable confusion. I hope these new terms will gain general acceptance.

    BTW Can't you have your blog software reject comments from "DM"? The fellow pops up in many blogs and is becoming a serious irritation.

  • tmdrange

    I haven't read the full paper, but would like to make three comments about the abstract that Taner posted:
    1. Intelligent Design Creationism is very often a supernaturalistic explanation for origins, but it need not be. Just taken as the claim that complex organisms originated via intelligent design, it is not supernaturalistic.
    2. The inference that Intrinsic Methodological Naturalism has philosophical flaws because five arguments for it can be refuted is an INVALID inference.
    3. It is unclear what is meant by "discarding a supernaturalistic explanation on purely evidential grounds." Suppose the explanation is discarded on the basis of Occam's Razor. Would that be called "evidential grounds"?

  • J


    "1. Intelligent Design Creationism is very often a supernaturalistic explanation for origins, but it need not be. Just taken as the claim that complex organisms originated via intelligent design, it is not supernaturalistic."

    I agree with that in principal, but as far as I know, no one has ever made a non-supernaturalistic claim of intelligent design. I mean the refutation of a naturalistic designer is no different than that for a super-naturalistic one, but we tend to refute the argument that has been offered.

    The universe shows no evidence of being designed by an intelligence resembling human intelligence. No human has had verifiable access to any non-human capable of (what we would call) complex design. Therefore reading intentional design into the fabric of the universe is purely unevidenced speculation, deserving the exact same credence as, "Leprechauns are controlling the New York Stock Exchange."

    There, it's the same for a natural or supernatural designer.

  • RichardW

    On reflection, I'm not entirely happy about the way the paper (the final draft) addresses the argument from definition. It thoroughly addresses the case where a defender of IMN defines "supernatual" to mean something like "any phenomenon that is inaccessible by scientific means in principle." But I don't think it adequately considers non-question-begging definitions, i.e. ones that apply the word "supernatural" to those explanations typically thought of as supernatural, without regard to whether they are accessible by scientific means, either in principle or in practice at the present time. This is the kind of definition that the authors presumably have in mind when they ask the following rhetorical question with regard to the actual cases of methodical investigation by scientists of alleged paranormal phenomena, such as the healing effect of prayer:

    "If defenders of IMN are correct that science cannot deal with the supernatural “by definition”, does it mean that these experiments were pointless to begin with, or that scientists are not entitled to be sceptical about the therapeutic effect of intercessory prayer, because such purported phenomena necessarily lie beyond the epistemic reach of science?"

    Unfortunately this is the full extent of the authors' response to such a position, and I don't feel it's adequate. I think a defender of MN could respond as follows. The inference that prayer works would be scientific, but the inference to a supernatural explanation of that phenomenon (no matter how rationally compelling) would not.

    I think the correct response to this argument is to note that it's an argument about the meaning of the word "science". The arguer is not denying any non-semantic facts. He does not deny (in the context of this particular argument) that there could be a rationally compelling inference to a supernatural explanation based on the methods and logic of science. He simply denies that any such explanation can appropriately be labelled "scientific." And the only basis he can give for this is convention: science has been defined this way in the past. And since he doesn't attempt to justify the original decision to define science this way, he effectively insists that we must stick to the conventional definition of science whether it was originally appropriate or not. It has acquired its authority purely by virtue of having been in use for a certain period of time.


  • RichardW


    Now, that's not automatically an unreasonable position. One can argue that changing a well-established meaning of a word could cause confusion. But would it cause any confusion to remove this restriction on the use of the word "science"? No, because this arbitrary convention does not normally play a significant role in people's use of the word "science". The change would only make a difference (a) in arguments about the boundaries of science, and (b) if there ever were any good evidence for supernatural causes. And in these cases it's the existing convention that's confusing. It's confusing because the feature which is genuinely distinctive of science is its methods, not the particular explanations that it discovers. The arbitrary convention cuts across the genuninely distinctive feature of science.

    Imagine a scenario where a certain physical phenomenon is influenced by both natural and supernatural causes. A scientist aiming at a full understanding of this phenomenon would want to investigate both types of cause, and the same experiments and data might be used in inferences to both. The explanation he comes up with would involve both types of cause, but by the existing convention he would have to divide his explanation into two parts, only one of which could be labelled "scientific". And since it's generally insisted that only "scientific" explanations can be published in science journals and taught in science classes, the supernatural part of the explanation would have to be relegated to other journals and other classes, even if it were supported by even more compelling evidence than the natural part!

  • RichardW

    I have another minor criticism of the paper. I don't think the term "Intelligent Design Creationism" (IDC) is appropriate for a scholarly work. The term used by proponents of that position is "Intelligent Design", and as far as I'm aware there is only one position that goes by that name, so the addition of "Creationism" is not needed for purposes of clarity.

    IDC is a term used for polemical purposes, to create in the listener's mind a link between ID and creationism as the word was previously understood. I have no objection to the use of such a polemical term in appropriate contexts. There are strong and significant connections between ID and creationism, and I'm in favour of propagating awareness of that fact. But it seems inappropriate for a scholarly work, where I expect to see more neutral language employed.

  • Jason Streitfeld

    I have a problem with one of the premises in this paper: that IMN is a statement about the limits of science, as if it entailed that science couldn't account for some known phenomena.

    I think methodological naturalism is a part of science by definition, but that doesn't mean some realm of experience is therefore off limits to scientific research, or that science cannot fully account for every aspect of our lived experience. It doesn't place any limits on science. Rather, it denies the supernaturalist's claim that a full account of nature would have to include some reference to the supernatural. According to IMN, a scientific account of nature cannot possibly include any appeal to the supernatural.

    Science is how we account for natural phenomena, and this accounting has no place for the term "supernatural." The term "supernatural" is defined out of scientific relevance. So I don't think these authors properly frame a discussion of methodological naturalism, let alone make a strong case against IMN.

    Also, I think PMN is flawed. The problem is, supernaturalists don't appeal to scientific evidence, and don't recognize scientific methods as a possible way of testing supernatural claims. What sort of scientific experiment could show that a phenomenon was or wasn't supernatural? Again, the term "supernatural" is not a scientific concept, and so far has no clear place in any scientific discussion. So how could PMN make sense as an argument against any supernatural claim?

  • Lyndon

    I have not taken a look at the paper, but will and will comment more thoroughly. I have enjoyed Richard's discussion and will probably fall in line with him.


    I have stated this before elsewhere, but the idea that the "supernatural" is off limits to science is incoherent because the term "supernatural" is incoherent. As in, I do not believe it can be defined other than in a . . . non-empirical? way. In other words, the only meaningful defininition of "supernatural" is "that which is not natural." The claim that any "experience" may contain this content ("that which is not natural") is an empty claim since you cannot even begin to fathom or stake any claims as to exactly what that would be.

    Given that no one can give a meaningful definition (other than tautology?) of "supernatural," and certainly cannot begin to give the possible content or possible experiences of the "supernatural," then talk of the supernatural not only "has no clear place in any scientific discussion," but it has no meaningful place in any discussion. But once we have accepted that "supernatural" discussion has an acceptable role in one arena (god talk), it then becomes problematic in the other arena of science. The problem was that there was no "legitimate" discussion of what could constitute the "supernatural" to begin with, other than assumed beliefs and conceptions that were confused but stated positively.

  • Jason Streitfeld


    Are you under the impression that you have expressed some substantive disagreement with my earlier comment, or did you address your comment to me for some other reason?

  • Lyndon

    Sorry Jason, too quick of reading/jumping to conclusions. I agree with what your saying there.