Oct 28 2008

More on Methodological Naturalism

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Comments: 70

My posts from last Thursday and Friday on materialism sparked an unusual amount of activity in the comments, which is always great. There is much great discussion and links to further reading. But I feel I did not make my position clear enough, and a longer clarification than is appropriate for the comments is needed.

Much of the confusion and disagreement seems to revolve around definitions – it is difficult to find common ground when people are using different specific definitions for the same words. This is a common problem in philosophy, which seems to multiple terms with subtle distinctions, and has been further magnified by the fact that I was partly confronting how other people (like ID proponents) are using terms, vs how philosophers define them, vs how the public perceives them. Confusion ensued.

Although this is probably obvious, I want to say for the record that I am not a philosopher. I am a scientist trying to understand philosophy as it pertains to science and skepticism. This probably causes as many problems as philosophers who are not scientists trying to understand the philosophy of science.

So as I crawl back through this discussion of methodological naturalism and materialism I will try to be careful about defining terms and in which context.

Materialism and Consciousness

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the term materialism can have two uses. In one usage it specifically refers to the philosophical position of monism, as opposed to dualism. Monism is the notion that consciousness reduces to brain activity, and that nothing else need be going on to explain consciousness. Dualism is the belief that there is “something else,” although this something could be physical or not, depending upon the type of dualism.

Materialism has also been used, especially recently by ID proponents and their ilk, in a broader sense – applying it to all phenomena, not just consciousness. By this definition materialism is the philosophical position that all things can be explained ultimately by material physical causes.

This broader use is very problematic, for reasons explored thoroughly in the comments of my previous post. One definition that currently has no utility is saying that materialism refers only to matter. Science already includes things other than matter in its model of reality – no one, as far as I know, argues that the universe is made only of matter.

The problem is that the anti-materialists (I will use this term to refer ID proponents and others who argue that science is “rigged” against the supernatural) are using the term “materialism” to refer to the current scientific approach to understanding nature (not just consciousness). In that sense, materialism must include all of the stuff that science currently says nature is made of, including all types of energy, dark matter, and space-time itself.

Natural vs Supernatural

This seems to be the crux of much of the confusion – how to define natural vs supernatural. This is, in a way, an unanswerable question – because any meaningful answer requires absolute knowledge of reality, which we will forever lack. There is therefore no gold standard of natural that we can use to define, by exclusion, the supernatural.

Natural is therefore defined by our current knowledge – it is everything that has been discovered by science to exist in nature. That list will change as new discoveries are made. This is not an a-priori list – nothing is included or excluded based upon first principles or any bias. The list is strictly science-based and therefore open-ended.

In this sense, I agree with those who have argued that the distinction between natural and supernatural is meaningless, and that science does not restrict itself to any arbitrary list of what is “natural.” It is true as some have observed that saying that science deals with only the natural is a tautology, because the natural is defined by what science deals with.

The confusion stems from trying to define these terms by some fixed criteria.

The Method in Methodological Naturalism

The only way to make sense of all of this, in my opinion, is to define natural and supernatural not based upon what is, but on what we can know.  They are defined by whether or not they are amenable to scientific methods of investigation – not whether or not they are actually true.

Let’s take ID, for example. ID is outside the realm of science not because it posits something which is not known to exist, but because it frames that new thing outside the methods of science.  It is alright within the framework of science to hypothesize that the universe has intelligence, that a powerful force created life with intention and design, or any other such notion. The only requirement is that such a hypothesis must make testable predictions.

ID proponents say that life was created by an intelligent designer – but they do not allow anything to be speculated about that designer or the methods used. This prohibits any predictions. No ID proponent has ever proposed a method for the creation or the design, nor have they made any statement to the effect that – if life on earth were designed then it should have these testable properties. Rather, they flip it and say that whatever properties life has, that is what the designer intended – because the designer is not constrained in any way.

As an aside, ID proponents will say that they have done this – that if life were designed it will display “irreducible complexity.” But this does not work, because IC is not a demonstrable property of life or any component of it. Rather, it is based entirely on the perceived inability of another theory (evolution) to currently explain features of life (it is therefore a negative feature of another theory, not a positive feature of ID). As an example of why this does not make ID testable, prior claims of irreducible complexity have been shown not to be irreducible, and this has not falsified ID. Even if evolution could explain every jot an tittle of life ID proponents could still say that the designer just chose to make life look that way.

Getting back to the main point – what makes ID not science is not in the fact that it proposes new forces of nature (although that is a weakness, as Occam’s razor favors minimizing new assumptions), rather it is that it is not amenable to scientific investigation. As I said previously, scientific method does not allow you to say – “and then a miracle happens.”

Robert linked to this article on the naturalism.org website. Actually, I agree with the details of this article. It is really saying the same thing I am, just in a different way. For example, under the definition of science it says:

Science seeks testable, verifiable, and transparently mechanistic or specifiable explanations for phenomena – no mysterious or unspecifiable processes play a more than a passing role in scientific accounts.

And about why ID is not science it says:

ID doesn’t specify how design is carried out: no mechanism or process is proposed, and further, no means of discovering this mechanism is proposed. The mechanism remains unacceptably mysterious with no hope of being clarified.

What does “mysterious” mean? I think an operational definition of “mysterious” would be the same as my methodological definition of “supernatural.”

Science and God

This methodoligical approach also deals with the problem of whether or not science can deal with God.  The answer is – yes and no. If a supernatural (meaning inaccessible to science) power were meddling with our universe (with stuff science could access), science could detect it, document it, and even describe it. We could say that something was happening.

However (by the premises of this hypothetical situation) if the ultimate cause of these physical effects were beyond scientific methodology, the best science could do would be to describe anomalies. Science comes across anomalies all the time, and the typical approach is to assume (because we really have no choice) that the anomalies are due to either errors in observation, errors in our current theories, or incompleteness in our current theories, meaning there is some new phenomenon to discover.

So far the scientific approach (assuming anomalies will lead to a deeper understanding of reality) has worked out pretty well. This is the best evidence we have that our universe if mostly rational and does not include “supernatural” (by my definition) forces that will remain forever “mysterious.” If it did, then we would run across anomalies that we could never explain scientifically. All we could do would be to describe them, but we could never come up with a testable theory of mechanism.

Here is an example – what if we were all really just computer programs living in a virtual “matrix”-like universe? The laws of the universe that we are investigating are really the laws of this virtual matrix. But we are just virtual beings in this matrix, and as such have no hope of ever discovering the true underlying nature of reality. Only a perspective outside the matrix can do this.

However, the matrix is embedded in a physical universe with its own rules and laws. Beings in that greater universe who control the matrix can make things happen that cannot be explained by the rules that apply within the matrix – because they derive from a deeper reality inaccessible to being limited to the matrix itself. In this hypothetical situation the methods of science can discover the rules of the matrix, but not the rules of the deeper universe in which it is embedded, or this fact itself. Science could only be agnostic toward the matrix hypothesis because it cannot be investigated scientifically.

The matrix creators, however, could create anomalies within the matrix. Scientists could investigate those anomalies (document and describe them) but could never explain them – they would be enduring anomalies.

This is a perfect analogy to some concepts of God – he exists outside the confines of the laws of this universe but is able to meddle with it. We, as beings of this universe, have no hope of ever understanding God. But this also means we can never know scientifically if such a being exists or not. At most there would be enduring scientific anomalies.  There are currently no such anomalies, and the criteria for “enduring” is fuzzy, of course. How long must an anomaly defy explanation before we should conclude it is unexplainable? You could argue, never, and that is the approach I would prefer, but very long-standing anomalies would at least give those who choose to believe in an underling reality something to point to. Further, the lack of such anomalies is strong evidence for the power of science.


Saying that science requires methodological naturalism is really just another way of saying that science requires falsifiable hypotheses, which in turn requires the assumption that the universe makes sense – it consistently follows an internal set of rules. ID proponents and others who oppose this view want to inject supernatural explanations into science, by which they mean ideological beliefs that are not testable by science. They try to dress up these beliefs as scientific theories by framing god-of-the-gaps arguments from ignorance (like irreducible complexity) as if they were testable hypotheses – but they are not.

They further confuse methodological naturalism, which in practice means that “natural” is whatever is amendable to scientific investigation, with an a-priori list of accepted natural phenomena, everything else being excluded supernatural phenomena – but there is no such list.  The anti-materialist arguments are all an elaborate deception (facilitated by confusing philosophical terminology) meant to break the rules of science to allow for untestable ideological beliefs. This fight was fought long ago, and the current rules of science are the result. The anti-materialists just don’t like the view from the losing side.

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