Methodological Naturalism

Book Review – Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism

Image of Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism
by Alvin Plantinga
Oxford University Press 2011
Hardcover 376

Lesser mortals like me can’t claim to fully understand everything Alvin Plantinga writes in books like Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. What we can do is pick up some high-protein food for thought, and possibly, along the way, improve our thinking habits in some potent ways. I read the book primarily as an audiobook, but also in the hardcover form.

First, some context. Plantinga is an analytical philosopher. He writes from a Christian worldview, but—at least in this book—isn’t really doing apologetics for Christianity or for creation doctrine, except maybe indirectly.

Rather, the book is focused on a single two-part question—and the author’s focus throughout is laser sharp. The question is this: Is there really any substantial conflict between science and “theistic religion,” and is there instead substantial conflict between science and naturalism?

Much of the time, Plantinga refers to Christian theism in particular, but he occasionally points out that most of what he is attempting to show applies to other theistic religions as well. His thesis is stated in the Preface:

There is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism. (ix)

Plantinga sums up what he means by naturalism. Also from the Preface:

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Scientism & Naturalism

(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).

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Scientism Isn't Science

These remarks stem from some interchanges I had with some believers about methodological naturalism.

Many a scientist will say they are simply looking for natural explanations of phenomena they come across. If that really were the case, there would be no difficulty at all. But that is not so. Scientism is on a quest. The goal is driven by a rigidly held belief that “Science” is a God-free edifice. Hence, “looking for natural explanations” is actually “permitting only naturalistic explanations.” Once we change the adjective to “naturalistic” we can see better what the project is that is being pursued. It is an anti-supernaturalistic universe that is so urgently desired by these people, and the device used to insure the supernatural realm keeps out of the way is the philosophical procedure called “methodological naturalism” (MN).

Every Christian is familiar with the problem of the strident dogmatism of many scientists and their disciples. They love to poke fun at faith and the Bible, seeing themselves as having outgrown such myths. They trust in Science. Science and the declarations of its knowledge elites is their god. In his book Monopolizing Knowledge, MIT Nuclear Physicist Ian Hutchinson has labeled Scientism, the belief that all knowledge comes from the natural sciences, as “a ghastly intellectual mistake.” Yet it is a persistent and habitual mistake which shows no signs of abating.

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