Methodological naturalism is the basic approach of science. Since science is the study of the natural world, the methodology of science is limited to the parameters of the natural world. Methodological naturalism is theologically neutral.
So what does that mean?
On a very fundamental level, it simply means that science is the study of the natural world, and, therefore, science is limited to naturalistic methodology. Science is limited to the observations of matter, energy, space, and time.
Another way of putting it is that science has no preoccupation with anything that is super natural. Science is limited to a focus on the natural world. Science doesn’t bother itself with anything but the natural world (though scientists might stray beyond it).
None of this should be in the least bit earth-shattering. Confusion arises, however, when we begin discussing the supernatural, the metaphysical, the theological, and even the philosophical realms in relation to science.
There are those scientists, for instance, who have recently suggested that the advance of science today has done away with the necessity of philosophy. People like Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson have made statements like that, though they have both backed off of those initial statements more recently. It’s important to understand that those statements, themselves, are philosophical in nature, and not scientific.
To suggest that science has done away with necessity for philosophy is to ignore the limitations placed on science in its very methodology. Science, itself, is not philosophical, but evidence from science can support premises that are philosophical, and scientists themselves draw philosophical conclusions from scientific facts.
Science may inform philosophy, but it can never replace philosophy. To think otherwise is to exalt science beyond its natural parameters (pun intended) and to fail to appreciate the difference between science and philosophy.
Just as scientific facts can support philosophical premises, scientific facts can support theological premises. When we get to the subject of theology, however, even more confusion exists. If some scientists object to bringing philosophy into science (though they have no problem doing it themselves), they object even more strenuously when theology is brought into science.
But, is theology brought into science? Or is science brought into theology? Or should never the two meet?
There are people, such as those in the intelligent design community, who feel that science can be used to show evidence of design in the universe. Design, of course, is a philosophical or theological conclusion. Those who want to focus on the purity of science might balk at characterizing design as a scientific conclusion. After all, science is limited to the study of nature, and design (the causal effect of a Creator) is a super natural conclusion – not a natural (i.e. scientific) one – they say.
Even some people of faith would disagree with the statement that science proves design. In fact, the impetus for this blog piece comes from a discussion of the “New Theistic Evolutionists” on the Reasonable Faith podcast by Dr. William Lane Craig. Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project, and the people at Biologos are what Dr. Craig calls new theistic evolutionists. They seek to harmonize faith and science, and they aim to do so while maintaining the integrity and purity of science.
These theistic evolutionists would agree with the “scientific consensus” that science does not and cannot prove design. This is because science is limited to naturalistic methodology, and naturalistic methodology is limited to the study of natural things. A conclusion that the natural world exhibits design is not a scientific conclusion, but a metaphysical, philosophical or theological one. A conclusion of design goes beyond naturalistic methodology. Therefore, the determination of design goes beyond science.
In Dr. Craig’s podcast, he contrasts that position to the position of intelligent design advocates who are willing to draw the supernatural conclusion from the naturalistic methodology. The theistic evolutionists want to maintain a sort of purity in the naturalistic methodology that is science. Though they believe in design, they are unwilling to call their conclusion science. Whereas the intelligent design advocates are willing to make the connection from the natural world to a designer and call it science.
To a certain extent, these are two sides of the same coin and are, perhaps, splitting hairs, but it does impact how we look at science and faith. Theistic evolutionists want to maintain the integrity of the scientific consensus and to meet the unbelieving world at that point of scientific consensus. They want to maintain a close relationship with the scientific community. The intelligent design advocates, on the other hand, are not afraid to take a maverick position and to challenge the current scientific consensus.
Theistic evolutionists attempt to operate within the existing scientific consensus, while the intelligent design advocates have chosen to operate outside of the current scientific consensus.
There is a certain segment of the scientific community at large that aims to minimize and cut off the voice of this maverick, intelligent design movement and to exclude them from the scientific community. Biologos appears to side with the scientific community on this point. This is unfortunate, I think, in that many of the great discoveries of science have come from mavericks who departed from the consensus to pursue theories that did not initially have consensus support.
It seems to me that the scientific community can afford to leave room for intelligent design, though it is under no obligation to embrace it. It further seems to me that the new theistic evolutionists could be a bridge between the intelligent design community and the scientific consensus, though the loudest voices of that scientific consensus campaign openly against any notion that science could or would support the idea of design – even as a legitimate philosophical or theological conclusion to be drawn from science.
This seems to be the motivation behind the statements that science has eliminated the need for and value of philosophy. They don’t want any pesky philosophy using their science to support the idea of design. This is because they have reached an opposite conclusion, and they have called that opposite conclusion “science”. According to their own insistence on the purity of science (naturalistic methodology), however, the conclusion that the universe is not designed is not science; it is a philosophical conclusion. Methodology and philosophy are two different things.
As a matter of pure science, the position that Biologos has reached and which the scientific consensus seems to hold is simply being true to the naturalistic methodology that establishes the parameters of science. Science tells us about the natural world, plain and simple; science by its very nature tells us nothing of anything beyond the natural world. To that extent, there is no problem with this approach to science. The problem comes in the application of science to the broader discussion about the fundamental values of life and reality.
The segment of the scientific community that claims philosophy no longer has any value has exalted science to a position that is troublesome and problematic. This segment of the scientific community leaves absolutely no room for anything but a naturalistic explanation because they have made a philosophical determination (that they claim is scientific) that reality consists only of the things that science can explain.
This would be like the linguist claiming that the study of language has advanced to such a level that we no longer have the need for mathematics. Language is the only thing that really exists, which just happens to be what linguists study.
The fact that science is limited to naturalistic methodology and limited to the parameters of the natural world is not an issue in and of itself. When scientists conclude, however, that there is nothing other than the natural world and that science is the only measure of what is true we run into problems. Such a position exalts the methodology to an ultimate conclusion that is not justified.
The thinking is circular. It goes something like this: if science is the study of the natural world, and science reveals nothing but the natural world, then science is the study of everything that exists. Science is the study of the natural world and, therefore, by its very limitations cannot be used to reach a determination that no reality exists but for the natural world. How could naturalistic methodology reveal anything beyond the natural world it studies?
Many people today have conflated scientific methodology (that is limited to the study of the natural world) with the philosophical conclusion that there is no reality but for the natural world.
I find it interesting to listen to the differences between the theistic evolutionists and the intelligent design community and whether the conclusion of design is a scientific one or a philosophical one. To a certain extent, it does not matter whether it is one or the other. Scientific proofs can be used in doing philosophical and theological analyses and arriving at philosophical and theological conclusions. We don’t have to call them scientific conclusions. Whether that means that science proves those things or does not prove them is somewhat beside the point.
The undercurrent of this interesting, but seemingly harmless, discussion, however, is that a segment of the scientific community is advocating that science is the only pathway to understanding reality. Against that backdrop, whether design as a scientific conclusion or a philosophical conclusion makes a big difference. If the conclusion of design is not categorized as science, intelligent design advocates can be excluded from the scientific community.
When Krause or de Grasse Tyson say that science has done away with the need for philosophy, they are taking it one step further. They are not only trying to exclude people who believe in design from participation in the scientific community; they are trying to exclude them from any discussion of reality and truth. They are claiming that science, only, can tell us about the world and all other paths to understanding are illegitimate.
I agree with the scientific consensus and with the folks at Biologos to the extent that science is limited to the study of the natural world, and science cannot tell us whether God exists. If God exists, He exists outside of and transcends the natural world. Using science, which is the study of the natural world, to conclude that there is no reality but for the natural world, however, is not only problematic, it is illogical. How could methodology that is limited to the study of the natural world tell us anything about whether a super natural reality exists that transcends the natural world?
If you would not go to a theologian or philosopher to learn science, why would you go to a scientist to learn about God or truth that transcends what science can tell us? Science, by its very nature, is limited to the reality of the natural world. We need philosophy and theology to learn anything about the reality that transcends the natural world.
When scientists go beyond science to make philosophical statements, like science has done away with the need for philosophy, they are getting away from science and straying into areas in which they have no expertise. And, we should call them on it.