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Austin Cline

Methodological and Philosophical Naturalism

By April 7, 2004

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An important goal of the Intelligent Design movement is to get people to think that “methodological naturalism (MN) entails philosophical naturalism (PN)." In other words, they want people to believe that the naturalistic methodology that is standard in modern science is compatible only with atheism, not with theism.

Jack Krebs responds:

There are two primary reasons that this proposition is wrong. The first is that science’s commitment to “methodological naturalism” is not a dogmatic, a priori “rule” of science. Methodological naturalism, to the extent that the phrase is useful, is a shorthand phrase for a whole set of pragmatic considerations that guide the scientific enterprise.
A common rejoinder to the argument that MN entails PN is that there are millions of people who accept science as it is currently practiced and yet are not materialists. ... And yet when the ID movement is asked about these millions of people, they disavow and dismiss them in ways which are, in my opinion, insulting and arrogant. For instance, in a speech in Lawrence, Kansas in April of 2000, Phillip Johnson said, in response to a question, that liberal Christians “are worse than atheists because they hide their naturalism behind a veneer of religion.”

So far I agree, but then:

Because this argument that “MN entails PN” is so central to the Wedge strategy, and because it is so divisive, effectively marginalizing the beliefs of the large “silent majority” of theists who accept science, this argument deserves scrutiny. Are all the “theistic evolutionists” wrong, holding inconsistent views and essentially supporting materialism while holding their religious beliefs “tucked safely within [their] heart,” “untouched by the ‘real world’?’

Krebs doesn't think so, but I don't think that the possibility should be dismissed so readily. People do seem to remove their "religious beliefs from the realm of “real” knowledge," putting religion in a compartment separate from science. They do tend to regard religion as something that they just take on faith and that can't be critiqued from a rationalistic perspective (a necessary corollary if religion can't be defended from a rationalistic perspective).

Intelligent Design creationists think that if people understood this, then they would abandon their methodological naturalism and embrace irrational religion whole-heartedly. I doubt that would happen, however. People compartmentalize beliefs and attitudes all the time. Separating religion from scientific skepticism is just one example of that - how often do people separate other favored beliefs (like political beliefs) from scientific skepticism as well?

Pointing out to people that this is what they are doing will result in denial or bored shrugs. Yes, people are inconsistent. Yes, people rationalize things they want to believe but can't defend using normal means. Yes, people compartmentalize. None of this is new or shocking.

Creationists want people to accept the logical implications of their religious beliefs and dump methodological naturalism. Some atheists want people to accept the logical implications of their methodological naturalism and dump religion. Both groups make the mistake in thinking that people are ever really going to be logically consistent in the first place, accepting the logical implications of one belief even when it means abandoning another belief that they like. Some people can do this, and it might be nice if more did as well - but by and large, most people just don't work that way - and it won't do any good to imagine otherwise.

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