Methodological Naturalism
Take Two

Lucy: Thanks for the coffee today, Carl. It warms my heart.

Carl: I would love to take credit for it, Lucy, but a friend of yours bought each of us a cup. Or is it a quart? Whatever it is, it's big and guaranteed to warm both of your hands as well as your heart.

John: (Walking over to their table) My pleasure, Lucy. Yours is a super-sized-ultimo-extremo-grande-titanic-XL: good to the last drop .. assuming you can get to it this week.

Lucy: Thank you, John. That's very generous of you. I just hope I can lift it. So, what's happening with you?

John: To be honest, I happened to overhear your conversation last week about Methodological Naturalism and wanted to join you, but didn't feel comfortable intruding. Mind if I do so today? (He winks.)

Lucy: Not at all. Please join us. We'd love to hear your two cents.

Carl: Indeed, I'm sure it will be worth very penny.

Lucy: Carl! Be nice. He did buy you coffee, after all.

Carl: Just kidding, Carl. I am very appreciative. Thank you.

John: My pleasure. I hope.

Carl: Well, since you started our day off right, why don't you start our conversation off right? Methodological Naturalism, Take 2?

John: You got it. Thanks, Carl.

From the perspective of one who has done a lot of research on the subject, I find two issues missing from your discussion last week about origins science and evolution which I believe are crucial.

There is no mention that origins science is significantly different from experimental science in two significant respects. Both differences, require a completely different method of analysis. 

First, as explained by Ernst Mayr, an icon of evolution, origins science (e.g. evolution) is a historical science that cannot be conducted or tested using only observation and experiment.

“. . . Darwin introduced historicity into science. Evolutionary biology, in contrast with physics and chemistry, is a historical science – the evolutionist attempts to explain events and processes that have already taken placeLaws and experiments are inappropriate techniques for the explication of such events and processes. Instead, one constructs a historical narrative, consisting of a tentative reconstruction of the particular scenario that led to the events one is trying to explain.” (Ernst Mayr, "Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought", Scientific American, July 2000, p. 80 - emphasis added).

The biggie is how does one objectively test the narrative to see if it is the best of the evidence-based alternatives?

Carl: I'm on board with that.

Lucy: I'm not and you should jump ship before it sinks.

I smell a bait and switch here. It seems to me that materialistic evolutionists want to use the prestige of science as bait and then sneak imaginative history, naturalistic philosophy and secular religion in the back door. The problem is that they end up proclaiming Darwin's theory good and the data of natural history is bad. Why you would call that scientific is beyond me. While I have absolutely no objection to science explaining things that are observable, predictable and repeatable, to suddenly redefine science to include just-so stories about the unobservable, unpredictable and unrepeatable past that are in conflict with the pervasive patterns of natural history is a bridge way too far.

I say, "Clear the bridge! We just hit an iceberg and my titanic coffee is going down!"

Carl: Tell me how you really feel, Lucy. Just don't spill your coffee.

John: I hate to interrupt, but ...

Lucy: Go ahead, John.

John: Thanks, Lucy. Now enjoy that coffee before it gets cold.

It follows from Mayr's comments that historical origins science seeks to explain the cause of unobserved and unobservable events by collecting clues or traces of evidence from which one may infer a past cause.  For the inference to be valid one must give careful consideration to all the evidence-based alternatives in an effort to reach an inference to a best present explanation.  Also, as the mix of evidence is constantly changing in origins science, what may be the best explanation today may be the worst tomorrow. 

Due to the lack of observation and experimentation, all evidence-based alternatives must be considered.  Imagine the investigation of a death where only natural/material causes may be considered.  As a consequence, Methodological Naturalism (MN) simply cannot be used in historical origins science because it does not permit consideration of the evidence-based teleological alternative. Without that consideration the materialistic alternative has no test – no competitor. It's like a football league with only one team.  Materialistic chemical and biological evolution will always be the best team – the league leader – because it is the only team allowed out of the locker room. 

Carl: If you are going to say that scientists must consider the theistic alternative that non-natural causes be included in the natural sciences, I'm going to throw a flag on the field right now. Besides, Darwin's theory of evolution has many competitors.

Lucy: Yes, but they all boil down to "it just happened"! "Long live time, chance and natural processes!" "Long live 'The Great Ran Dom'!"

Seriously? At t=0, nature didn't exist to cause anything, so reason alone should tell you not to rule out the obvious in favor of the ridiculous. If nature didn't have a natural cause why exclude the very real possibility that other natural discontinuties exist.

Evolution isn't the issue here unless you assume the history of life to be unplanned, unguided and gradualistic rather than a picture of Progressive Creation. Given all of the natural discontinuities in the history of the universe from the origin of space-time, matter and energy to the first appearance of life with its incredibly complex information processing systems to the sudden and discontinuous appearance of all of the major body plans, the materialistic history of life on Earth sounds more like imaginative arm-waving and unwarranted extrapolations: a complete comedy of errors in the theater of the absurd. Someone needs to take a cold shower and throw in the towel. Game over. More scientists need to get back to real science.

Carl: Well, I see the caffeine has kicked in there, Lucy. I almost hate to advise you to take another sip.

Care to wrap things up, John?

John: Just a few more thoughts, Carl. Thanks.

There is a Supreme Court case that is helpful with the first point - Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 153-54 (1999).  A science expert testified that a tire blowout that caused a fatal wreck was caused by a manufacturing defect.  In reaching this conclusion he acknowledged that he had not given any consideration to the alternative that the 60,000 mile tire that had been repaired two times blew out due to ordinary wear and tear.  Because he failed to consider that alternative the court held that his opinion was not based on scientific knowledge because the other evidence-based alternative had not been considered.  I'm a lawyer and in forensic and other historical sciences, Methodological Naturalism (MN) reduces explanations to just-so stories produced by tunnel vision rather than objectively derived scientific knowledge. So, if you want to stay in the realm of science, you have to give consideration to the evidence-based alternatives when you are doing historical science.

The second reason MN cannot be used in origins science, is that it asks and seeks to answer two ultimate religious questions – what is the cause and nature of the universe, of life and the diversity of life? 

It follows that when only materialistic/atheistic answers are permitted, the activity becomes religious rather than scientific. Atheism, Agnosticism, Deism, and Secular Humanism are all religions recognized by the Supreme Court, you know.

Thus, origins science that assumes materialism, naturalism or physicalism, instead of objectivity causes its explanations to be religious rather than scientific.  MN in this kind of "science" actually takes the inquiry out of the realm of objective science and replaces it with religion – a non-theistic variety.

Carl: So, is your solution to censor evolutionary biology or to bring your religion into public school science classrooms?

John: No, however, at the very least, I would encourage teachers to adequately explain how MN and the philosophy of naturalism restricts the study of origins to purely materialistic “creation” stories, not only despite contrary evidence, but even before any evidence is examined. With that disclosure, students can then decide what to believe about an issue that dramatically affects their worldview, whether theistic, atheistic or pantheistic.

Keep in mind that we are not talking about empirical science but rather about unobservable, unpredictable and unrepeatable events in the distant past, evidence that has been cherry-picked to support a materialistic viewpoint and data that is censored when it doesn't support that viewpoint. Students definitely need a good warning label whenever origins is discussed. It's simply too easy to sneak materialistic religions into science classrooms otherwise.

Ask yourself, why would any science educator want to turn a majority of their students off to science by promoting a philosophy that most people find objectionable, if not foolish? Why would any parent want their children to be inculcated into a materialistic or secular religion in the name of science? Why would any public school teacher want to offend the majority of tax-payers that pay for their services? Ultimately, parents will ask why there should be taxation without representation. Why shouldn't taxes go to where the tax-payers want them to go? Obviously, that's not going to end well for public schools.

Lucy: Well stated, John. Points well taken. When it comes to education, I'm definitely pro-choice.

As for myself, I would strongly recommend that science educators put evolution in context, begin at the beginning of time itself and teach their students that scientists once believed that the universe was eternal and that life arose spontaneously. Today, we know that the universe had a beginning in the finite past and that the Law of Biogenesis is still valid, wishful thinking not withstanding. In addition, I would strongly encourage educators to teach students about unsolved problems and weaknesses with any theory of origins in order to arouse their interest and motivate them to one day develop much better theories. Science can't progress without problems to solve nor can it advance without a healthy dose of doubt and skepticism regarding yesterday's science, by which I mean outdated 19th Century science.

Carl: While I rarely agree with you, Lucy, you make a good point about how science progresses. If we believe that our biology textbooks have everything right, we might as well stop doing science.

But I'm not sold on the idea that science needs to be redefined in order to include direct acts of creation by God. While John doesn't directly say it in exactly those terms, that's really what it boils down to. Yes, I know that Intelligent Design advocates insist that they aren't inferring that the God of the Bible was the intelligence, but who are they really fooling? Who do they think brought our finely-tuned universe into existence, some alien? Tell me how that happens. Obviously, the intelligence has to exist beyond time and space, so which other candidates do ID advocates have in mind?

Lucy: I hear you, Carl. Points well taken. But you have to admit that the opening words of Genesis 1, "In the beginning God created ...", stand on much firmer scientific ground than they did back in Darwin's day when naturalism and materalism were a lot more in vogue.

Carl: I'll admit that the inference to a creator is much stronger now than then, but that inference still lies outside the natural sciences. Neo-Darwinian theory is at least an explanation of how things function today and how they most likely functioned in the past. So called "Intelligent Design" doesn't come close to that.

Lucy: But, Carl, all we observe today is microevolution which clearly does not come close to explaining the origin of all of the major body plans found in the Cambrian Explosion, let alone the rest of natural history. Just as all life proceeds from pre-existing life, the history of life is a story about variations on pre-existing designs. Call it evolution or descent with modification, if you like, but the patterns of natural history reflect the patterns we see in the history of modern technology from the evolution of automobile to the evolution of computer hardware and software. Basic designs originally appear fully formed and functional with variations on these pre-existing themes following in time. It's the difference between Darwin's bottom-up predictions and the systematic top-down pattern we see in the fossil record. And I know that you would never infer that Henry Ford or Bill Gates never existed because their designs evolved.

Read over these quotes and know what our top scientists have known for decades despite over 150 years of searching for a Darwinian pattern.

Carl: I agree that evolution (no matter how you describe it) should be kept in context of the whole shebang. Context is everything. I also think you have something there with your discussion of natural discontinuities, Lucy. Assuming that none exist would be a real science stopper. A lot of scientific research could be done here beginning at the level of phyla and working down systematically.

Lucy: I'm glad to see that you are taking a more scientific approach than most of the Darwinists I have read. Drawing dotted lines back to an imaginary common ancestor makes for great science fiction, but science should really be about explaining the data we do have rather than the data we don't. After all, natural history does look a lot more like a forest than a tree. The real task for the biologist is explaining the "ordinary rules of stability" that even Stephen Jay Gould recognized form the prolonged periods of stasis in the fossil record. He admitted that "stasis is data", clearly seen from the evidence he found in the fossil record. Stasis is also 100% natural and subject to scientific investigation.

Frankly, I think that science has suffered long enough under Physicalism's "promises-made-promises-broken" philosophy. Hopefully, we are entering a new period of Post-Physicalism.

Let's all read Rupert Sheldrake's essay, "The Credit Crunch for Materialism" this week and get back together again soon. He notes that "philosopher of science, Sir Karl Popper, described this faith as 'promissory materialism' because it depends on promissory notes for discoveries not yet made. Despite all the achievements of science and technology, it is facing an unprecedented credit crunch." His words are a real eye-opener and might encourage scientists to develop theories that better explain the pervasive patterns of natural history beginning with stasis at higher-taxon levels. It should also explain why believing that the basic body plans in the history of life arose on a gradual step-by-step Darwinian basis is more fiction than fact.

In the meantime, I'm going to see if I can get my coffee warmed up. Next week the mini-decafs are on me.


Special thanks to John Calvert for his insights into Methodological Naturalism. Lucy's friend, John, borrowed heavily from his material but also did a little ad-libbing of his own along the way for which the actual author should not be held responsible. For this reason, be sure not to miss John Calvert's "Five Reasons Why Science Should Not Apply Methodological Naturalism to Exclude Evidence-Based Teleological Hypotheses in Origins, Behavioral and Social Sciences."

Also, check out his in-depth legal analysis: "The Absence of Religious Neutrality in K-12 Public Science Education"



Dialogues on God and the Universe

Art Battson
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