On Methodological Naturalism,
Materialism and Physicalism

What is natural?
Who put the material in Materialism?
How could nature have had a natural cause?
How could all of physical reality have existed eternally?


Carl: Lucy, it's good to see you again. While I'm thankful to you for letting me talk about methodological naturalism today, couldn't you have saved your questions for later?

Lucy: I could have, Carl, but thought that our friends might appreciate you answering them along the way rather than giving them a pop quiz at the end of our conversation. But I do have another question for you. Why this topic? Methodological naturalism is a mouthful, you know. Almost as much as Transcontinental Medication.

Carl: Funny girl!

Well, first of all, I know how fond you are of saying that "Reason tells us that either the Cosmos or its Creator has always existed while science tells us that it's not the Cosmos", so I want to stop you right there. According to the tenets of methological naturalism, science is limited to purely naturalistic explanations, so invoking a Creator to explain anything is clearly nonscientific.

Lucy: Slow down there, partner. When we're talking about ultimate origins and you insist on a naturalistic explanation, you might as well be asking me to play a game of "Heads, I win; Tails you lose." In fact, what you're saying is that we don't even need to look at any data or consider any other possibility. You're also telling me that scientists need to be closed minded about this matter and that if they doubt naturalism, they are being unscientific scientists. Since when does dogma trump data?

Carl: Do you have to be so .. so ... so brutally frank, Lucy? These are just the rules of modern science.

Lucy: You have to admit that the Cosmos has not always existed. A century ago that may have been scientific blasphemy, but certainly not today. Even if all you had was the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, it should be pretty obvious that stars won't burn forever and that, ultimately, the universe will die a heat death. The discovery that the universe is expanding ... and is even accelerating in its expansion ... only confirms the obvious. Do you want me to believe that the origin of the universe was natural even though nature didn't exist at some time in the finite past to cause anything? That defies reason.

Carl: The point I'm trying to make is that methodological naturalism precludes invoking any Creator or Intelligent Designer outside of the physical universe as a cause for anything.

Lucy: So the universe has to be caused by an Unintelligent Designer? No data need apply? It just happened? That doesn't sound very intelligent, let alone scientific. The cause of all reality was unpredictable, unobservable and unrepeatable yet the "scientific" dogma of methodological naturalism demands that it be? This sounds a lot more like the creation myth of the secular religion with which you may be familiar: Secular Humanism. You wouldn't want its creation myth taught in public schools to the exclusion of others, would you? Just remember what Christopher Hitchens had to say, "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence."

Also, keep in mind that "naturalism" is the noun here. It's an ideology or philosophy that can easily distort our understanding of reality. Invoking an unintelligent designer in the name of methodological naturalism is much more akin to natural atheology than natural science. Simply because the natural sciences are limited to the study of nature does not mean that nature itself is all there is or was or ever will be. Either matter preceded mind or Mind preceded matter. It matters.

Carl: May I get a word in edgewise here?

Lucy: Of course. But before we get too much deeper into our discussion, why don't you give us some definitions of Materialism, Naturalism and Physicalism. And could we just call them MN&P? My coffee is going to get cold otherwise.

Carl: Good call. For starters, I would refer you to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for definitions of Naturalism and Physicalism, but I'm afraid that you would have iced coffee before you've finished reading.

In simple terms, Materialism is the doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.

Lucy: I can hear Carl Sagan as you speak. "The Cosmos is all there is or was or ever will be, I really, really hope, forever and ever. Amen."

Carl: LUCY!

Lucy: Sorry. I'm just always amazed at how he was able to pack 3 whoppers into a mere twelve words.

Carl: Ouch. Aren't you Christians supposed to take Peter's words a bit more seriously? Didn't he write "But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect," (1 Peter 3:15)?

Lucy: You're right. I should have that tatooed to my wrist. But isn't it more important to have more respect for the living than the dead? Sometimes separating the person from the idea is hard to do and I confess that I could better. Please remind me when I don't. My point was really just to poke fun at MN&P: ideas, not people.

Treating people with gentleness and respect is simply following the Golden Rule and one of the two most important commandments. When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40).

Carl: I guess we all fall a little short at times. If Jesus can utter, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do", after he has been tortured and hung on a cross, I suppose I can forgive you this time.

Lucy: Great perspective, Carl, and thanks. But we digress.

Carl: Given that we're running a bit short on time today, let's do our homework on MN&P this week and get back together later. In the meantime, let's look at where the rubber meets the road. Scientists don't get paid for separating everything into two buckets: one for things that are intelligently designed and one for things that appear to be unintelligently designed. Their goal is to most accurately describe nature and how it functions naturally without any metanatural influence.

Lucy: By naturally, I assume that you mean describing things that are observable, predictable and repeatable. I'm good with that as long as you don't take a limitation of science and make a materialistic creation story out of it. Given the scientific progress that has been made since 1859 that would be a really bad idea. In fact, you should always be open to the very real possibility that natural discontinuities exist.

Carl: Like what?

Lucy: An obvious one would be the natural discontinuity between nothing and everything. Another example would be the discontinuity between life and non-life. Given that the simplest possible organism would be irreducibly complex, if it lacked even one essential component it would naturally decay back into its constituent parts long before its missing component arrived to save it. The bottom line is that purely natural chemical cross-reactions would inhibit a gradual chemical evolution of life and only give us more evidence for the Law of Biogenesis.

Carl: I noticed that you didn't include evolution in your list.

Lucy: If you wanted to add the Cambrian Explosion with its sudden appearance of radically disparate body plans and absence of preceding species diversity, please do. If you wanted to add Gould's "ordinary rules of stability", the ability of natural selection to prevent major evolutionary change from occurring on a gradual step-by-step basis and the development of a Theory of Macro-Stasis to the mix, please do. Developing a new theory that explains how nature actually functions rather than preserving a 19th Century materialistic creation myth (and stopping scientific progress in the process) would open up a huge opportunity for future scientific research that should lead to a Nobel Prize or two.

Carl: So when are you going to bring God into the picture?

Lucy: I think you just did. His eternal power and divine nature must already be pretty obvious to you. Discovering His love and justice may take a little more time, an open mind and an open heart, but it's well worth the journey. It will bring new meaning of amazing grace to you, not to mention an eternal life to study more science than you ever thought possible. Death is your own personal science stopper, you know. As for love and justice, you'll find them meeting on Calvary's cross.

If you want to know more, "Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you."

Methodological Naturalism - Take 2


Dialogues on God and the Universe

Art Battson
Copyright 2022