Friday, March 25, 2011

Methodological Naturalism vs. Metaphysical Naturalism

There is a common confusion among people who discuss apologetic issues and Christianity with naturalism. Some affirm naturalism is wrong regardless of the adjective before it. Others, on the atheistic/agnostic side, report science has established nature is all there is; hence we ought to accept only naturalistic hypotheses. Which of these positions are right? For the truth-seeking mind the answer is neither.

There is a difference between metaphysical naturalism and methodological naturalism. First, we should discuss the latter. Methodological naturalism is exactly as it sounds; a scientific method. It deals exclusively in naturalistic explanations. For example, if a scientist wanted to understand the moon’s gravitational effect on the tides, he would not say, “It seems a good hypothesis is there are unicorns on a hidden, invisible base on the moon which use magical rays to pull back the water and then forward again. They just happen to do it in a way in which it appears the moon is involved.” Postulating magic just won’t work in methodological naturalism.

In this method of science the scientist must look for natural causes. Further, he must test his naturalistic hypotheses in accordance with other, known facts about the universe and the way things operate. This is an essential of modern science. This is not a bad thing. Finding out the way the natural world works is exactly how mankind has been able to cure diseases, bring technology as far as it has come, put a man on the moon, etc. In summary it is a method for knowledge of the world around us; it is a method for knowledge of the world God has created.

However, some scientists have, from methodological naturalism, mistakenly inferred metaphysical naturalism. Metaphysical naturalism is the view that “nature is all there is,” or there exists no realm of the supernatural, non-physical, or even mental. Aside from its attended problems, there just is no link between finding out how the world works in terms of naturalistic explanations and there being nothing in existence which is non-natural.[1]

In fact, science is not even equipped to answer the question of metaphysical naturalism. Since methodological naturalism focuses on naturalistic causes and effects to the exclusion of anything else, science cannot hope to find out whether or not anything non-natural exists without defying its methodology. A priori, the methodological naturalism of science precludes its operating in terms of ultimate metaphysics. When science then engages in this behavior on the basis of science itself, it is merely begging the question.

How then can metaphysical naturalism be held as true? Only metaphysicians, or philosophers (or even philosophers of science) are equipped to answer this question. But only in the case that one has good reasons to think God does not exist does one also have good reason to think metaphysical naturalism is true! Even then, the problems referenced in the footnote before must be adequately addressed. So, the methodological naturalist has no basis for embracing metaphysical naturalism. What is required for this basis is both good reasons to think God does not exist and a coherent answer to the critics. In any case, scientists do not have good reasons, a priori, to accept metaphysical naturalism. They are not even using the right tools for the question!

[1] Alvin Plantinga, Victor Reppert, and other theists have argued (convincingly, in my view) that metaphysical naturalism is counterintuitive and self-defeating.

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  1. Randy,

    You might be interested in Barbara Forrest's paper on the subject of why Methodological Naturalism should lead to Metaphysical (Philosophical) Naturalism:

    I'm not specifically endorsing it, but I thought I would bring it up as relevant reading.

  2. Here is a better paper on the topic than Barbara Forrest,, and here is why I believe both are inadequate:


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