(A follow up to Scientism Isn’t Science)
Naturalism is defined by Stewart Goetz & Charles Taliaferro in this way:
Naturalism—very roughly—may be defined as the philosophy that everything that exists is a part of nature and that there is no reality beyond or outside of nature. (Naturalism, 6)
Something being “a part of nature” is here meant to exclude the supernatural. Naturalism then is opposed to supernaturalism. It is seeing all things as natural and nothing as being supernatural. It is this view of the world which informs scientism, and it is this same view which informs modern scientific procedure. Although it is important to say that the procedure does not lead every scientist to embrace scientism (the belief that all questions about reality can be scientifically determined), scientism certainly needs the procedure. This procedure is what is called “methodological naturalism” (MN).
Make no mistake about it, the definition of naturalism accepted by most scientists is freighted into their understanding of MN. This is to say the word “naturalism” in methodologicalnaturalism bears the same metaphysical meaning as it does in secularist philosophical naturalism of the sort promoted by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Coyne and the rest. And this ought to surprise nobody. For the method which leads to naturalism must be logically set on its course by naturalism.
We may wish to distinguish philosophical naturalism from methodological naturalism because we think they are separate things. We may want to assert that the “naturalism” of methodological naturalism is different than the “naturalism” of philosophical naturalism (PN). But that minority position is a weak one for the reason that it involves an equivocation. If, for the minority, the “naturalism” of MN is not the same as the “naturalism” of PN then perhaps it would be better all round for these equivocalists not to use the term methodological naturalism at all. From my point of view, I think this would be advisable so as to avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding, especially for Christian supernaturalists who believe that the laws of nature do not hang in the deterministic ether, but are reliant every moment upon the powerful word of God. They should not and need not be in denial of this central fact when pursuing science, but they may have to rename their method to better reflect a biblical position. Perhaps something like “reasoned” or “critical empiricism”?
Is it all to no Purpose?
The ingredient which is supposed to be absent from MN is teleology.
If strict naturalism is true, then there is no ultimate and irreducible teleological explanation of any event, let alone our actions, in terms of a purpose. (Naturalism, 13)
It can be admitted that science could not proceed much if “God did it” was the answer to every question. But that is a trivialization of the biblical worldview. The question which leads to science and encourages its pursuit is “How did God do it?” That leaves the scientist free to analyze the natural world without pretending that it is everything that exists. God’s purpose would not then interfere with the accumulation of data and theorizing.
Yet teleology is not only essential to understanding basic truths (e.g. the heart is for pumping blood; a stick of chalk is for a chalkboard; a lab coat is for wearing in a laboratory), it is basic to many enterprises which are covered by the word “scientific.” Detecting purpose is at the very center of archaeology, forensics, and other pursuits in historical science.
Michael Polanyi wrote,
Our vision of the general nature of things is our guide for the interpretation of all future experience. Such guidance is indispensable. Theories of the scientific method which try to explain the establishment of scientific truth by any purely objective formal procedure are doomed to failure. Any process of enquiry unguided by intellectual passions would inevitably spread out into a desert of trivialities. Our vision of reality, to which our sense of scientific beauty responds, must suggest to us the kind of questions that it should be reasonable and interesting to explore. (Personal Knowledge, 135)
Every notion of guidance suggests a goal or purpose. There are no guides on the road to nowhere. And although we may not know where the road leads we surely wouldn’t travel down it if we didn’t expect it to bring us out in a fruitful eventuality. Pretending to ignore teleology brings on scientific reductionism—a reductionism which will threaten to strangle the parent which gave birth to it. Polanyi’s insistence in the inescapability of tacit or personal knowledge; what today is usually called “first-person” knowledge, is antithetical to the naturalist agenda. Hence, MN is usually circumscribed within a false objectified disinterested or detached third-person paradigm: one which, as Polanyi and others show, is simply impossible.
What naturalists need for their metaphysical project (shall I say “goal”!) is a closed system of causation. As Goetz and Taliaferro explain, “A study of the literature about strict naturalism…leads one to believe that in the end strict naturalists appeal to one central argument in support of their view ‘the argument from causal closure’” (Naturalism, 26). Unsurprisingly, as we have already said, philosophical naturalists take firm hold of MN as the way to prove their philosophy. Thus,
The philosopher Jaegwon Kim argues that a neuroscientist (indeed, any scientist) has a methodological commitment to the causal closure of the physical world. (Naturalism, 28)
And Kim himself is quoted as saying,
Most physicalists … accept the causal closure of the physical not only as a fundamental metaphysical doctrine but as an indispensable methodological presupposition of the physical sciences. (Naturalism, 29)
Consciousness is not a physical thing. But if one is a naturalistic materialist it has to be a physical thing. If physicalists cannot explain consciousness and intentionality, they can at least kick the can down the street and tell us the explanations are on their way. They can do this because in their world methodological naturalism resists, always and everywhere, non-natural and purposive explanations.
In the worldview of the Bible, the scientist should not invoke supernatural causes of natural phenomena, but for a very important reason: although God’s power and wisdom is understood to be the cause of the matter under investigation, the Creation mandate only requires—indeed dictates—that the natural world be examined to see what God did and to comprehend the mechanisms, physical and mental, which He uses to create and sustain a thing. In this outlook the first person and the third person perspectives coexist in coming to knowledge.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.