Turning methodological naturalism into rhetoric

In trying to make the argument that science can bear on the “God hypothesis,” Boudry et al. have to deal with the fact that “According to a widespread philosophical opinion, the methodology of science is intrinsically naturalistic. It is simply not equipped to deal with supernatural claims, so it has no authority on questions of metaphysics.”

They try to get around this widespread philosophical opinion by making a distinction between two types of methodological naturalism.  They begin their article as follows:

For over a long time, creationists and intelligent design proponents have complained that modern science is biased towards materialism and naturalism, and that it rules out any supernatural forces by fiat (Gish 1973; Macbeth 1974; Johnson 1993; Nelson 1996; Behe 2006). In response to these charges, many philosophers and scientists have recently argued that science is only committed to something they call methodological naturalism (MN): science does not deal with supernatural causes and explanations, but that is not to say that the supernatural does not exist. However, there has been some philosophical discussion about the correct understanding of MN and its proper role in science. In an earlier publication (XXX), we have made an often neglected distinction between two conceptions of MN, which involve two quite different views on the limits of science and the proper role of its naturalistic methodology.

Okay, before we look at their two versions, pay careful attention to an important fact.  The authors do not define science, never define science, and make no effort in trying to define science.   This is inexcusable.  Because they fail to define a term so important for their argument, they will be free to tap into any definition of science available as they go along crafting their rhetorical case.  We’ll see how this plays out later on.

Here are their two versions of MN:


  • A widespread philosophical opinion conceives of MN as an intrinsic and self-imposed limitation of science, as something that is part and parcel of the scientific enterprise by definition. According to this view (Intrinsic MN or IMN)….. science is simply not equipped to deal with the supernatural and therefore has no authority on the issue.
  • Instead, we defended MN as a provisory and empirically grounded commitment of scientists to naturalistic causes and explanations, which is in principle revocable in the light of extraordinary empirical evidence (Provisory or Pragmatic MN – PMN).


Given that Gnu atheism is scientism in a cheap tuxedo, one could only imagine how offensive it must be to hear someone claim science “has no authority on the issue.”  PMN thus becomes a way to try to recapture that authority.  But it succeeds only in a rhetorical sense among those inclined to embrace such rhetoric.  Since I am not so inclined, PMN appears to be nothing more than an attempt to reframe IMN in way that makes it look like such authority has always been there.

You can detect the rhetorical essence of PMN by its reliance on two catch phrases:

“In principle.”  Another way of saying “in principle” is “not in empirical reality.”  Or, “in my imagination.”  Yep, “in priniciple,” (wink, wink), science can revoke its commitment to naturalistic causes and explanations, complete with formulas, statistics, and models and replace it with “God did it!”   Trust me, it can.  In principle, that is.  Several years ago, when pestered about how God was supposed to have actually designed something, Michael Behe joked, “In a puff of smoke.”  At the time, his critics thought he was serious and mocked him for this answer because it was so unscientific.  But according to Boudry et al., in principle, there is nothing at all unscientific about the answer.  They think scientific explanations can terminate with “God did it” or “A puff of smoke.”  They may believe this.  I don’t.  I don’t think any scientist, trying to understand how our world works, would ever be satisfied, as a scientist, with “God did it.”  And I see no evidence to think I am wrong.

The second catch phrase is “extraordinary evidence.”  Y’see, in principle, in some hypothetical imaginary world, science would gladly abandon its attempt to explain the world through laws and contingency if only we had something called “extraordinary evidence.”  But what in the world is “extraordinary evidence?”   In fact, at what point does evidence become extraordinary evidence?  How do we tell if we truly have   extraordinary evidence?  The appeal to extraordinary evidence is simply an appeal to subjectivity.  We will call this evidence extraordinary only when it looks extraordinary to us.  And if it looks extraordinary to you, not us, we’ll make our subjective opinions about this look objective with a vote.  If most of us do not think you evidence is extraordinary, it is not.

So PMN is nothing more than a convenient promise that someday, someplace, science will abandon its commitment to natural laws and processes and embrace “God did it!” as a scientific explanation if folks like Dawkins, Coyne, and Boudry et al. could just subjectively perceive something as not only “evidence” of God, but super-duper “extraordinary evidence” of God. Yeah, right.

That PMN roots its distinction in an imaginary world responding to criteria shrouded in a thick cloud of obscurity tells us it is a distinction without a difference.  The real distinction between IMN and PMN is that of intellectual honesty.  IMN openly acknowledges its biased approach (a bias forced on it by the limitations associated with human inquiry) and PMN does not.

But it’s even worse than this, as we’ll see in the next posting.

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One Response to Turning methodological naturalism into rhetoric

  1. eveysolara says:

    If all the hypothesis comes down to is “God did it”, that will not impress anyone. But it is not unthinkable that supernaturalists would come up with something better some day (although
    it’s pretty unlikely). What if they can explain a wide array of empirical data on assuming a specific and falsifiable supernatural hypothesis (e.g. a coherent design plan on God’s mind)?

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