Scientific presuppositions and the supernatural

Posted on June 24, 2010


In the discussion of my interview (linked to in the previous post) one of the readers suggests that I think science must presuppose naturalism on, what I gather is being suggested, something like faith. This is, of course, nonsense but it is very popular nonsense and is based upon a couple of misconceptions concerning science that are common even among scientists, themselves. The error finds its formal expression in the idea of a distinction between ‘metaphysical naturalism’ and ‘methodological naturalism’ that is often put forward by de Vries, Plantinga and by various accommodationalists. Since this issue arises in the part of the book I am currently working, I’ll run through it here briefly.

The first problem with the distinction is that the terms used sound all too similar to the usual ontological/epistemic naturalism distinction. Indeed, sometimes those two kinds of naturalism get called ‘metaphysical’ and ‘methodological’, respectively, also.

Secondly, the Plantinga distinction is not really between two different kinds of naturalism but between two different ways of holding naturalist ontological beliefs. In the case of metaphysical naturalism, it is supposed to be the case that one claims that naturalist ontology is correct while in methodological naturalism one simply makes the pragmatic decision to only make use of natural explanations, without taking a stance on the existence of God. The implication is that according to the methodological naturalist there is no good evidence either way so the choice can only be made pragmatically.

Thirdly, metaphysical naturalism is standardly presented as the dogmatic assumption that God does not exist. While this is a possible way that someone could hold an ontologically naturalist position, it is a very peculiar one and certainly does not exhaust the possible naturalist stances when combined with methodological naturalism. This is hardly surprising given that the Plantinga dinstinction is not used for proper investigation of naturalism but for argumentivative reasons to frame the debate in terms of a supposed distinction between naturalist ‘fundamentalists’ and accommodationalists.

If that were all to the distinction it would not be worth mentioning in a serious discussion of naturalism. And, indeed, in a purely philosophical context it would probably not. However, in the context that I work in, that also includes anthropological and psychological considerations, it is important to understand why people find this distinction attractive. As it is, such investigation will end up bearing philosophical fruit.

The fundamental problem with the Plantinga distinction is that it effectively assumes the primacy of ontology over epistemology. By this I mean that it assumes that to understand science one must beging with the ontology of science. This is very much understandable from the point of view of someone who was brought up on a christian religion that is presented as having its basis in a number of ontological claims that must be taken as true. It is also a profound misunderstanding of what science is. It would be better to think of science in terms of various methods that are used to investigate the world. The scientific ontology is an a posteriori result of the application of those methods to the world. To put it in other terms again, ontological naturalism is the a posteriori result of accepting epistemic naturalism. Yet, even that is not quite right as it suggests that science can be identified in terms of some set of methods. This is quite incorrect because, just as the contents of scientific ontology, the contents of scientific methodology undergoes under constant change. The reason it does that is that scientists allow their results to shape their methods and beliefs. In effect, it is best to think of science in terms of an attitude – that attitude being of actively seeking to alter one’s beliefs and methods on the basis of what knowledge one does possess in order to better understand the world. The contents of scientifc ontology and the nature of scientific methods follows from this, again, only a posteriori.

What does this entail for Plantinga little distinction. The metaphysical naturalism he talks of runs very much counter to this idea of science in that it is supposed to make ontological assumptions without any evidence. So, any metaphysical naturalist is not a very good naturalist at all. Indeed, I know of no philosopher who would fit this bill. What about methodological naturalism? That is fairly nonsensical also in that scientists are not naturalists beause they have to be in order to do science. No, they are naturalists because, in so far as they allow the evidence to shape their beliefs, no belief in God or any sort is actually required by that evidence.

I have avoided that term ‘supernatural’ even though it appears in the title of the post. The reason is that the term is also highly ambiguous. As an ontological distinction between entities in the world it is useless to a naturalist for the simple reason that the naturalist does not think there are any supernatural entities. It is more useful as a distinction between different kinds of concepts that people have – it is definitely the case that a lot of people have supernatural concepts. At this point things get interesting in that we can ask why people have those concepts. This is what cognitive science of religion does, of course. I think the explanation will be purely naturalist. To say that is also somewhat ambiguous, however. Firstly, I think that  the explanation will be natural for much the same reason that I think the sun will rise tomorrow. It is a case of making an induction on past events. Secondly, however, I expect the explanation to be natural because for something to be an explanation it must be natural. What does this mean? It means that it has to be in terms of some sort of a mechanism that can be investigated. This implies that supernatural explanations are nothing of the sort, even though they may be psychologically convincing. Again, the reasons why they are convincing are interesting and are being investigated.

A consequence of what I have said is that the term ‘naturalist’ in its philosophical sense is, actually, at heart somewhat nonsensical or, at best, empty of content. The only reason why it is necessary is that there are people who hold what, for the want of a better term, are called supernatural beliefs. Analysing the issue more deeply, the term ‘naturalist’ is only neccessary due to the biased nature of human cognition and the kinds of ghosts it gives birth to in our minds.

This is hardly a carefully presented statement of my views on these issues. It does, however, help to clarify what I mean by “scientists have to be naturalists”. Hopefully.