What’s Up With Methodological Naturalism?

If you listen to creationists like Stephen C Meyer, and other members of the Discovery Institute, you’ll eventually hear them go on at great length about “methodological naturalism”, and that it’s a cornerstone dogma of science, and that it’s bad and wrong and an unfair arbitrary standard that even scientific theories aren’t held to.

This largely hinges on a fundamental misunderstanding of methodological naturalism (MN), and when it’s construed as a “dogma” or a merely arbitrary “rule” that must be adhered to, then of course it’s ridiculous. Fortunately, that’s not what MN is.

Methodological Naturalism is not an a priori position that supernatural explanations must be excluded from all scientific discussions, else those discussions are not scientific. MN is the result of several hundred years of experimentation and theorising where, without exception, all mystical suppositions have failed.

You see, MN is the guideline of “let’s stick with what we can test and demonstrate”, and when we have an explanation for something, “testing” and “demonstrating” also applies to the explanation. An example would be Aristotle’s conception of motion: for Aristotle, all things that moved were moved by movers. Every object, from falling apples to the planets, to your hair in the wind, were all moved by minuscule, invisible, intangible movers. Any way to test these movers: nope. Any way to demonstrate their existence: nope. Buh-bye minuscule, invisible, intangible movers.

It’s not just that our explanation has to de facto exist in the real world. Creationists, again, like to point out that physicists invent particles all the time. Of course, said creationists fail to likewise point out that those same physicists then spend large amounts of time and money developing tests to demonstrate the existence of these obscure particles.

So it’s not that merely ‘inventing entities’ is disallowed, but that ‘inventing untestable entities’ moves your claims beyond the bounds of science. You want to argue that ghosts are responsible for the cookies going missing in your house? Fantastic! But if you want to deny that those ‘ghosts’ interact with matter, then not only is your hypothesis self-contradictory (cookies are made of matter) but it’s also untestable, and therefore useless (and also unscientific).

The creationists new favourite argument against various theories of evolution is that of Intelligent Design, which posits that since DNA/humans/blades of grass are full of “specified information”, and specified information can only be designed, then this is evidence that some sort of intelligent agent was involved in the design/creation/evolution of humans.

Soooooo… About this alleged “intelligent agent”? Who? What? Where? When? How? Why? This is an entity which, itself, requires explanation. If this entity is unexplained (and whose existence is unverifiable, except by reference to the very thing it’s being used to explain), then this is an entirely useless theory. Intelligent Design proponents like to claim that they are not arguing anything religious, yet their ‘intelligent agent’ is about as defined as God is (i.e. not at all), an unsurprising coincidence. Alas, this lack of definition is the Achilles heel of the whole idea.

If we were, say, to argue that humans were created by a species of space ghost, who could only interact with matter on the molecular level (and thus induce life to form, and to continuously alter the evolution of entities on earth), we’d at least have somewhere to start testing. As ridiculous as “life on earth was created by Space Ghosts” may be, it’s more coherent than the current iteration of Intelligent Design.

I think it’s helpful to not here that Methodological Naturalism is merely a corollary of Occam’s Razor, the idea that we shouldn’t “unnecessarily” multiply entities. Which is to say: if your explanation requires further explanation, that’s a strong hint that your explanation is problematic. It’s not necessarily wrong, but the history of science is littered with unnecessary entities like the aether, and phlogiston. Again, what those theories had in their favour (as “science”) was that they made specific claims and predictions, and were testable. “Some dude designed life, cause look! Information in DNA!” is about as credible as it sounds. While it may be comforting to declare that the problem “scientific dogma”, all Methodological Naturalism is doing is raising a red flag about the lack of sufficient explanation contained within the religious notion of Intelligent Design.

This post is a precursor to my review of Darwin’s Doubt.

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