Defending Methodological Naturalism

Some time ago, I was having a debate with a fellow Tippling Philosopher (from the casual pub group I helped set up) and rushed out this response. He was arguing that science might not have the answer, that a supernatural explanation should not be ruled out. He stated:

Then, there you go again JP with your “there is shed loads of (presumably scientific) research” to back up your argument in a debate about the status of scientific research. This isn’t playing fair as it assumes the outcome before the debate begins. You seem incapable of putting science under scrutiny as, for you, it is a given that embraces all in the universe. Unfortunately the debate is asking “Does science embrace all in the universe?” In other words what is the status of scientism? So when you say “This is given in science” what if one does not consider oneself to be entirely “in science”? It kind of stymies the debate before you get started. I certainly don’t consider all of what I am to be “in science” and would hope for more than an – Oh yes you are/Oh no I’m not – debate…

I’m sure you can see what I’m saying.

The word “explanations” is also interesting as it implies a scientific explanation when, again, the debate is about whether what we are is entirely “explicable” or that we are in a position to “explain” all scientifically.

In all of this conclusions are being jumped to before the debate begins.

Here is what I had to say in reply:

OK, so this is a position against methodological naturalism (MN). The first question is, what are you doing? I assume you are trying to find out explanationns of how the world round us, including us, works.

So what tools can we use? Well, MN assumes that natural phenomena are all that we can use to do science, to work out the natural world around us. Why? Well, this is because positing anything else is, by definition, unobservable and untestable. As a result, such claims become mere assertion along the lines of “making **** up”. By this I mean that if you come up with some causal explanation as to why something happens so, and it is supernatural, there is no way of being able to evaluate how reliable that claim is, and it becomes no more probable or improbable than me pulling an idea out of my arse and offering that.

This does not invalidate your claim a priori. However, if naturalism has an explanation which is equally good in scope and power, then Ockham’s Razor would set preference for the simplest explanation.

Here are a few good reasons that MN is good:  testability, the use of laws in explanations, fruitfulness, the promotion of agreement and cooperation, and the avoidance of blocked inquiry. Blocked enquiry is important because what using methodological supernaturalism (MS) does is prevent further enquiry from taking place. It’s God of the Gaps, and stops further enquiry.

As Lawrence Lerner states:

Methodological naturalism is not a “doctrine” but an essential aspect of the methodology of science, the study of the natural universe. If one believes that natural laws and theories based on them will not suffice to solve the problems attacked by scientists – that supernatural and thus nonscientific principles must be invoked from time to time – then one cannot have the confidence in scientific methodology that is prerequisite to doing science. The spectacular successes over four centuries of science based on methodological naturalism cannot be gainsaid. On the other hand, a scientist who, when stumped, invokes a supernatural cause for a phenomenon he or she is investigating is guaranteed that no scientific understanding of the problem will ensue.

The question becomes “How can you show that your claims are reliable or true?”

Some arguments, which I have mentioned before, include Lowder’s Argument from the History of Science. As Richard Carrier states:

The cause of lightning was once thought to be God’s wrath, but turned out to be the unintelligent outcome of mindless natural forces. We once thought an intelligent being must have arranged and maintained the amazingly ordered motions of the solar system, but now we know it’s all the inevitable outcome of mindless natural forces. Disease was once thought to be the mischief of supernatural demons, but now we know that tiny, unintelligent organisms are the cause, which reproduce and infect us according to mindless natural forces. In case after case, without exception, the trend has been to find that purely natural causes underlie any phenomena. Not once has the cause of anything turned out to really be God’s wrath or intelligent meddling, or demonic mischief, or anything supernatural at all. The collective weight of these observations is enormous: supernaturalism has been tested at least a million times and has always lost; naturalism has been tested at least a million times and has always won. A horse that runs a million races and never loses is about to run yet another race with a horse that has lost every single one of the million races it has run. Which horse should we bet on? The answer is obvious.

Lowder, in the intro to the formulation of his argument, states:

If there is a single theme unifying the history of science, it is that naturalistic explanations work. The history of science contains numerous examples of naturalistic explanations replacing supernatural ones and no examples of supernatural explanations replacing naturalistic ones. Indeed, naturalistic explanations have been so successful that even most scientific theists concede that supernatural explanations are, in general, implausible, even on the assumption that theism is true. Such explanatory success is antecedently more likely on naturalism–which entails that all supernaturalistic explanations are false–than it is on theism. Thus the history of science is some evidence for naturalism and against theism.

Read more here.

So not only does it work, not only have supernaturalistic explanations never supplanted, and for reasons (admittedly only) listed above, but MN has a massively higher prior probability to be true.

I cannot rule out a supernatural claim; but I can do that no more than you can rule out invisible goblins as an explanation.

What would evidence look like for your claim? If you cannot have empirical evidence, then what purely rational evidence/argument could you have that is better than a naturalistic one, and that doesn’t look to just be an argument from possibility (this is sometimes called the possibiliter ergo probabiliter fallacy)?

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About Jonathan MS Pearce

Pearce is a philosopher, author, blogger, public speaker and teacher from Hampshire in the UK. He specialises in philosophy of religion, but likes to turn his hand to science, psychology, politics and anything involved in investigating reality. He is on a journey towards truth; come join him.