Search This Blog

Vibrant Dance: Problems of Methodological Naturalism

This is the last post in the Vibrant Dance series, as far as I know now. The last two events were breakout sessions, and I was a TA at the last one, so didn’t take notes. I will offer a brief comment about it at the end, but I am ready to move on to a larger variety of topics. This blog will probably have a larger than normal posts related to science, since that is my field, but the intended audience includes all disciplines, so I try to be cognizant of that.

For the third breakout session, I attended one entitled, “Why it is a bad idea for Christians (or really anyone) to accept Methodological Naturalism,” presented by Paul Nelson of the Discovery Institute. I was particularly interested in this one because as a scientist, I understand that MN is how we are to “DO” science, though I would refer to it more as NM or a naturalistic methodology. In other words, it is how I do my science rather than how I do my philosophy. It’s a semantic thing, but like in most fields, semantics are important because words have meaning, so the words we use communicate what we do and think.

Nelson started out with a definition or rule of MN from the National Academy of Sciences, “The statements of science must invoke only natural things and processes.” {emphases added} He proceeded to contrast methodological naturalism (MN) with philosophical naturalism (PN), which is illustrated in the previous paragraph. He then asked if many who advocate for MN don’t hold to the PN, why do they object to the idea of Intelligent Design?

He stated that these scientists, theologians and philosophers are worried about a problem of impotent causality—in other words, “such and so phenomenon ‘can’t ‘ happen by natural processes.” In short, they are concerned such explanations are a veiled god-of-the-gaps argument, which is a valid concern.

Furthermore, as explorers of the universe, we have several toolkits available to us to aid in our exploration. Two of these are “natural causes” and “intelligent causes.” We tend to keep these separate from each other—another example of NOMA. We tend to want to exhaust all natural causes before invoking intelligence, but it is logically impossible to eliminate ALL natural causes {versus all KNOWN natural causes}.

Yet, and however, we DO infer intelligent causes! But, we don’t do so by performing impossibilities. We simply bypass natural causes in some cases because the intelligence is so obvious that the natural possibility is logically ludicrous. {Basically, when you find an iPhone on the beach, you don’t start coming up with a naturalistic mechanism for the construction of a theoretical missing link between the sand and the iPhone, you start looking for a human being who may have dropped it.}

In spite of this, there is a paradigm that defines the types of problems that can/should be tackled scientifically and also what types of solutions to these problems are acceptable, and Intelligent Design is simply not part of those things. (Think back to the ‘must’ and ‘only’ qualifiers from the NAS.) This limitation actually goes back to Thomas Henry Huxley, a friend of Darwin’s, the founder of the journal, Nature, coiner of the phrase “agnostic,” and grandfather to Aldous, the author of Brave New World. He is the one credited with defining science as MN. Interestingly, he actually doubted many of Darwin’s claims, but liked his theory anyway because it avoided all of that teleological stuff.

So how was science defined before Huxley redefined it? Newton said it thus, “Where natural causes are at hand, God uses them as instruments in His work, but I do not think them sufficient alone for the Creation.”

Nelson stated that the motivation of the Intelligent Design movement is simply to restore Newton’s vision to the toolkit. If ID is true, why shouldn’t we consider it? The NAS rule of MN as the only way to do science limits our freedom to seek the truth in science and in life, generally. Nelson’s point is that there isn’t an inherent problem with the MN toolkit, except, that it is smaller than the ID toolkit, which includes everything in the MN toolkit, and adds more tools for the scientist to use. He said, “I’d rather have the bigger toolkit, wouldn’t you?”

Nelson makes a nice argument. During the Q&A at the end, he and I went back and forth on the premise implied in his title, namely that we shouldn’t accept MN. Partly because I am so sensitive to the ease with which god-of-the-gaps arguments can slip in to our theories when we are hunting for explanations, I feel obligated to examine claims of intelligence with a hypercritical eye. To me, as a Christian who has experienced God directly in my life, it is obvious to me that God is behind Creation. The only questions deal with how He accomplished things, not whether He did. However, I know a number of people who were everything from anti-Christian atheists to nonchalant agnostics who, through the marvel and wonder of Creation as revealed through their scientific endeavours, found themselves turning to God in faith. So I cannot dismiss the apologetic that science can offer. I also take issue with the must/only phraseology of the NAS, but I still see MN as a powerful and necessary primary toolkit for the scientist. I balk a bit at the apparent intensity of Nelson’s presentation of the material, though it probably takes that to effectively push back at the 150 years of entrenched opposition to anything beyond MN in science. The issue I guess I still struggle with from his talk is that the title implies we should reject MN, but he concludes that the MN toolkit is a subset of the ID toolkit, so it seems that the issue is really with PN and its adherents dictating that MN is “all there was, is or ever will be.”

So it seems it goes back to worldview more than methodology. I see both Christians and naturalists comingle these so badly it is no wonder that the discussions are heated and folks talk past each other. If you have read many posts here, you will recall my soap box on this issue several times. I expect that most naturalists have no problem comingling them, and probably genuinely feel they are part and parcel of each other.  It is imperative, therefore, that we as Christians separate them clearly in our minds and in our discussions, so that we can be consistent in our terms, and eventually win a hearing among the more open-minded naturalists, and prayerfully, generate a little more light than heat in the discourse.

The final breakout session I attended (and for which I served as a TA) was by William Dembski (Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary) on “Randomness by Design.” It was a fascinating talk by a trained mathematician on how the very randomness sometimes found in nature points to Design. One argument that stuck in my mind was that it is strikingly difficult to truly get a random number because patterns are endemic in the universe, but are often hard to recognize as patterns at first. We seem to deem anything we don’t recognize as random, only to later discover a rich pattern intrinsic in it. Take for example ‘junk DNA’—we didn’t see any purpose in it and assumed it had no meaning or use—oops, wrong again. Dembski offered a richer argument than I provided here, and truthfully, some of it went over my head the first time around. This is just what I can remember without notes three weeks later.

A final comment on the Vibrant Dance: Andy Crouch offers an excellent summary of the conference here.


No comments:

Post a Comment