Monday, February 16, 2009

Seeking to distinguish "methodological" from "ontological" naturalism

Today's post was inspired by my having read the Wikipedia article on the Copernican principle.

The article begins, "In cosmology, the Copernican principle, named after Nicolaus Copernicus, states the Earth is not in a central, specially favoured position. More recently, the principle is generalised to the relativistic concept that humans are not privileged observers of the universe. In this sense, it is equivalent to the mediocrity principle, with significant implications in the philosophy of science." And then, two sentences later: "Michael Rowan-Robinson emphasizes the importance of the Copernican principle: 'It is evident that in the post-Copernican era of human history, no well-informed and rational person can imagine that the Earth occupies a unique position in the universe.'"

I mentioned that "Scientists who are Christians like to note that science, rightly understood, utilizes what may be called 'methodological naturalism'" . . . and that this form of naturalism needs to be distinguished from ontological naturalism, "a philosophical commitment to the claim that the natural/physical realm is all there is."

I affirmed this distinction with my closing comment: "Let us not confuse philosophical commitments with science."

I write this post, today, because of the obvious difficulty, in practice, for most people to make this distinction. Even if they are able to make this distinction in their headiest, most intellectual moments, they regularly fail to do so in normal, day-to-day interactions. Or, put another way, they don't operate in a manner consistent with their avowed beliefs.

We may complain all we want about the inconsistency of the practice, but the fact remains, this kind of confusion is almost inescapable. Do you see (as I do) that "the Earth is not in a central position" is not equivalent to "the Earth is not in a specially favoured position"? Or that neither of these statements implies anything--certainly not anything scientific--about humans' relative "privilege" as observers of the universe?

Or what about the reference to the mediocrity principle--"the notion in the philosophy of science that there is nothing special about humans or the Earth. It is a Copernican principle, used either as a heuristic about Earth's position or a philosophical statement about the place of humanity"? Do you see that the mediocrity principle, too, is not scientific? (I hope so!)

Or how about the suggestion that "no well-informed and rational person can imagine that the Earth occupies a unique position in the universe"? [Of course, on basic logical grounds, the Earth would no longer exist if some other planet were to impinge upon its unique physical location in the universe; if such an event were to occur, the Earth would be obliterated. But . . .] the author of these words was attempting to make a philosophical statement. And the "scientifically-oriented" author of the Wikipedia article who quoted this statement: he, too, obviously wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to make a philosophical statement of his own. . . .

Question for Christian apologists: Should we stoop to the same level of sloppy thinking? (I think not!)


An acquaintance of mine, a well-known advocate for an old-earth, Intelligent Design (ID) perspective, complained recently about the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), a broadly Christian (and not necessarily evangelical!) organization of which he is a member. The ASA's "stated purpose is to investigate any area relating to Christian faith and science and to make known the results of such investigations for comment and critique by the Christian community and the scholarly community at large" and yet, my friend complained,
[M]any of us (including me) . . . have the experience of going to ASA meetings and meeting mostly people who put down ID with snide swipes, and complaining that too many ID sympathizers are starting to infiltrate their organization, and what can we do to keep ID-sympathizing faculty out of our Christian colleges, etc. . . . I liken it to going to a church whose statement of faith you agree with, but which is populated entirely by right-wing conservatives, and you are a Democrat. There can be a "culture" which can turn people away even [if and as] the leadership and policies are good. Percentage-wise, I would say that the ASA is <1% YEC, 5% ID, and 94% TE [theistic evolutionist]. Among TE's, of course there is also diversity of viewpoint, some with the view that God speaks to us in nature, and others (probably at least half) who would say it is utterly wrongheaded to use science in apologetics in any way, shape, or form.

There is a fine line between presenting an "is" and an "ought." We all can present that the consensus of the science world "is" that Darwinian evolution explains all of life. ID people acknowledge that, but say the majority can err, and "ought" to draw different conclusions from the data.
My brother, a Stanford-educated high-end IT guy, wrote, in response to my previous post in which I presented Gordon Glover's suggestion that, if our lives were on the line and we had the choice, we would choose a highly qualified and experienced athestic evolutionary brain surgeon over an inexperienced Christian creationist brain surgeon every chance we got:
[D]oes science require methodological naturalism? I'm not so sure anymore.

And is a person's spiritual ever completely disjoint[ed] from their professional perspective? I've been treated by a world-renowned surgeon . . . who admitted that he would not have had the patience to spend the six hours [invested] by a less-skilled surgeon in South Africa to do a better job of repairing my body [than he, the world-renowned surgeon, would have done]. The same surgeon saw something go terribly wrong in one of the procedures he performed . . . and finally concluded "it was nothing." Another doctor may well have attributed the same "nothing" to a spiritual battle and would have prayed about the situation.

I no longer believe that anything in creation is "purely material." We are simply adept at ignoring God's influence. I'm not talking animism. I'm saying God is involved more than we think.

So, is it really so cut and dried? I don't think so.
Being familiar with the details of my brother's story, I know whereof he speaks. And I agree with him that nothing in creation is "purely material"--an affirmation that the Haarsmas, Glover, and every other evangelical Christian scientist with whom I have had the privilege to interact, would agree. . . .



Something I have noticed: We--I may affirm something in words that I won't live out in practice.

As I confessed to my brother several years ago as we were discussing issues closely related to what I am attempting to address, here, today: Far too often, I find myself operating as if I were an atheist. I behave too much as if God didn't exist. I ignore Him. I am, as I said to my brother, a "functional atheist."

That's the way I live. Too often.

Which brings us back to the reason for this post.

And maybe I should state it as a question: "Does methodological naturalism lead inexorably and unavoidably to ontological naturalism?"

I'm afraid Western intellectual history seems, at least, to imply such an intellectual/philosophical/theological trajectory.

But that is the trajectory of Western culture as a whole.

Must it be the trajectory of every individual scientist or methodological naturalist?

I think history answers that latter question as well. And it answers the question in the negative: Many individuals have maintained a vibrant faith and vibrant faithfulness to God in the midst of also operating within the methodological naturalism of science.

And I believe the Haarsmas, Glover, and other authors who write in similar ways are seeking to demonstrate not only that such a reality exists, but to point us in a direction so that others can stand upon their shoulders or follow them in their scientific endeavors.

"Science offers wonderful, God-granted benefits," they say. "So shouldn't we, as Christians, embrace those blessings so as to transmit them--as conduits of grace--to our fellow human beings?"

A key point pressed by the Haarsmas and Glover: that, indeed, the world is not "purely material"; and God does utilize proximate means or proximate causes to achieve His ultimate purposes. Indeed, as Christians, knowing and acknowledging the truth about God's intimate involvement in our daily affairs, His involvement "even" in such unpredictable, "random" events as the throw of the dice (Proverbs 16:33), we, of all people, ought not to be disturbed when scientists look for proximate, material causes to large-scale events that might otherwise be ascribed solely to the sovereignty of God. We ought not to object to the scientific program--the program that has set its sights on looking for proximate, material causes for whatever phenomena scientists determine they want to discover proximate, material causes. That--seeking proximate, material causes--is what science is all about. That is what distinguishes science from theology and philosophy. The scientific enterprise has to do with identifying proximate, material causes. Period.

To demand that science seek anything beyond or other than physical or material causes is, by definition, non-scientific.


Glover complains about a Christian astronomy textbook whose author writes,
One of the biggest problems for those believing in cosmic evolution is explaining where all the structure in the universe came from. How could stars form and then organize themselves into galaxies, and how could the galaxies form clusters of galaxies? Scientists who believe in evolution have no answer to this question, because no one has ever seen stars (or anything else) arising out of nothing.

--Beyond the Firmament, p. 30, quoting Jonathan F. Henry,
The Astronomy Book (Master Books, 2002), p. 14

Glover notes that this paragraph is based on the logical fallacies of argument from ignorance and incredulity:
Because science can't explain everything, it's tempting for Christians to . . . offer supernatural explanations that support whatever specific version of creationism they believe in. These arguments may be effective in the short term, but they only work as long as the thing being argued isn't yet established by science. It goes something like this: science can't explain X. We know that the Bible says Y, and Y seems to explain X. Therefore the Bible is true and all men are liars.

In logic, that is called an argument from ignorance. It only works because of what we don't know, not necessarily a cause of what we do know. Something is assumed to be true only because nobody yet knows how to prove it false.

Here is another one: X is something beautiful or amazing. X is so incredible that it couldn't possibly have a natural explanation. The Bible says God established X by the work of His hands, therefore God must have done X by divine fiat. There is simply no other reasonable explanation.

In logic, that is called an argument from incredulity. It only works when we just can't conceive of how something could be explained and naturally, so we say that only God could have done it.

There are many problems with these two lines of reasoning, which are really two sides of the same coin. But the biggest problem is that we have unintentionally put matters of faith in opposition to scientific discovery. What happens when scientists eventually find a natural explanation for X? Does God then become unnecessary? Does Jehovah join the ranks of the unemployed deities from the ancient world because we no longer need Him to explain the mysteries of creation? . . . Do we expect astronomers to just throw up their hands and say, "Oh well, I guess God must have done it--let's go home early today"? . . .

We already know that science is a limited enterprise, and when it can't tell us everything we need to know about the universe it's all too tempting for Christians to rush in and fill the void with a supernatural explanation. We want to show the world that where science is failed, we have succeeded! To us, this proves conclusively the truth of our supernatural claims. We have the answers if only people will listen! . . .

True to form, the very next paragraph in my daughter's astronomy book says this:
The Word of God, however, does answer this question [of how stars arise]. The Bible says that God created and organized universe by His infinitely powerful spoken word. (Henry, op. cit., p. 14)
Put away the telescopes, folks, now we know how the stars and galaxies are formed!

Despite the gratuitous sarcasm, I really don't have any problem with the statement, as long as it isn't offered as a divine placeholder for a yet unknown material mechanism. In fact, I would even make the case that really young children don't need to know anything more about astronomy than "He made the stars also" (Genesis 1:16). But we shouldn't misrepresent modern astronomy of the Bible to kids by telling them that these two ideas are both competing answers to the same question.

I agree with Psalm 33:6, which proclaims, "Why the word of the Lord were the heavens made." But if stars can have a natural cycle of birth, life, and death, why put this new material mechanism of creation in competition with the spiritual meaning of creation is revealed by Scripture? . . . [D]idn't God also "make" us? It were we all not also born from our mothers' wombs as part of a natural cycle of birth, life, and death? What happens when my daughter goes off to college, takes Astronomy 101 and finds out that we'd actually known for years the physical mechanisms by which stars and galaxies were formed? Will she then questioned everything she learned about God? Will she feel betrayed by her parents and teachers?

Science has a very successful track record of discovering things that were previously unknown. If we raise our children to believe that supernatural explanations are in competition with natural ones, we are basically entrusting their salvation to ignorance and incredulity. For their sake, we should always leave the door open for the future discovery of a material mechanism that doesn't threaten the theology of creation that we give them.

--Beyond the Firmament, pp. 28-29, 31-32

My desire: to make my affirmations of faith and faithfulness become more and more reflections of my behavior in daily life. May I no longer live as a "functional atheist," but may I acknowledge my God and work out my salvation in the midst of a universe that, I know, is filled with proximate causes . . . proximate causes that God Himself created, established, and holds together (Colossians 1:16-17).

For a future post: Should--and, assuming they should, to what extent should--spiritual insights inform and interact with methodological materialist pursuits?
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