Science is not equivalent to Naturalism

May 10, 2010

To explain the source of science's power, we often hear a simple formula saying that science relies on an assumption of "methodological naturalism". But what could "methodological naturalism" mean? I don't think that science can be equated with methodological naturalism.

Science is all about methodology, but what does the "naturalism" part add? If naturalism just means "current scientific knowledge", then we can substitute that phrase into our formula, and we get:

"Science relies on the methodology for knowing current scientific knowledge."

Well, yes, science is all about methodology, the methods of experimental inquiry. But our formula now just seems circular, trying only to say "science is what science does." We are left with an obvious tautology -- not false, but not explanatory either.  Also, the "naturalism" part is superfluous and drops out, having no informative role. 

Maybe naturalism means "only what is natural really exists". Nice, but what does "natural" mean? If "natural" means "what science knows" then we get:

"Science is the methodology for knowing about what science knows actually exists."

Well, this is not an improvement either. Again, we get an uninformative tautology, amounting to "science studies nature, and nature is what science studies." This tautology lets religions imprison science in a tight cell, incompetent to study anything that seems unnatural to people. Miracles? Science is, by this definition, unable to say anything intelligible about miracles, since miracles are violations of natural laws while science can only study natural laws. The mind? Consciousness is obviously immaterial so science by this definition can't begin to explain the mind. Our morality? Morality can't be found out in nature so science by this definition can't know anything about morality or help with improving morality. And God? By this definition, science must be utterly silent about the supernatural.

This myth that science is limited to "the natural" has been extraordinarily helpful to theological defenses of the supernatural. The Enlightenment age way of accommodating science with religion simply divided up all reality into the natural and the supernatural, letting science study the natural and permitting religion to describe the supernatural. Saying that "science is methodological naturalism" just repeats this dualistic theological formula. Why should we let theology set boundaries to science? How did theology get the authority to declare that some extraordinary events and unusual experiences are off-limits to scientific inquiry? And how did science let theology do this? Why should scientists (such as Stephen Jay Gould ) accept the notion of "Two Magisteria", two separate ways of knowing two different kinds of realities?

Besides, the notion that science is limited to naturalism is just false. Science itself disproves this. Since naturalism bases its worldview on current scientific knowledge, and science's progress is constantly revising current scientific knowledge, then science's progress constantly refutes naturalism. Of course, naturalism fast updates itself, so naturalism really isn't "refuted" by science, as if science could help supernaturalism instead. Rather, science perpetually transcends what is taken to be natural at any moment in time. There is no limitation upon scientific imagination. Sciences occasionally postulate wildly counterintuitive and "unnatural" things that violate both common sense and what counted as natural according to older scientific knowledge. And that is why science will always be a threat to religion, no matter what religion wants to think about science's limitations. Religion is rightly intimidated by science's power, since science has a long track record of refuting mythological explanations of the world.

Religion is hardly more imaginative or weirder than science. Religion offers belief in mildly counter-intuitive things like talking animals, flying demons, personalities surviving bodily death, and human-like deities with superpowers. However, science offers belief in maximally counter-intuitive things such as forces that act at a distance, electrons that don’t have any definite location, matter that consists mostly of empty space, empty space that spontaneously erupts in uncaused energy, a universe of unimaginable size, and multiple universes existing in extra dimensions. Ever since the first astronomers discovered how the heavenly lights obeyed strict laws, religions have struggled to keep up with the incredible new visions of the world supplied by science. Indeed, that is the typical function of elaborate theological systems, which go well beyond faith to "intellectualize" religious stories to stay compatible with science, since science constantly refutes mythologies. That's why we now see, for example, religious people giddy with excitement over quantum phenomena . Fundamentalisms are the rare "frozen theologies" which instead conservatively fight science in an all-or-nothing manner. Most theologies eventually offer accommodations to science (even though science cannot return the favor).

There is another tautology telling science where it can't go -- "science can't investigate the supernatural to disprove God". If supernatural means "utterly beyond the reach of empirical inquiry and human conception" then this tautology is valid. However, it really doesn't limit science, but only limits theology. If theology really wants to be in the business of telling people to keep the faith in an utterly mysterious divinity, common sense rationality is enough for skeptically eroding that theology. Science doesn't even have to worry itself with confronting theology on such vaporous ground -- just let a little logic and philosophy handle such thin theology.

Science's methodology of testing imagination through experimental inquiry is so powerful that it always pushes beyond whatever is taken to be ordinary and natural. Scientific progress depends on investigating and theorizing about surprisingly unnatural things that disrupt the old worldview of nature. There is no arbitrary limit to the range of human experience and conceivable reality open for scientific investigation.

That's why naturalism must constantly be updated, to keep all scientific knowledge coordinated and comprehensive, and this work is philosophical work. Philosophical naturalism undertakes the responsibility for elaborating a comprehensive and coherent worldview based on experience, reason, and science, and for defending science's exclusive right to explore and theorize about all of reality, without any interference from tradition, superstition, mysticism, religious dogmatism, or priestly authority. Naturalism, and not any particular science, is the right tool for confronting abstract theological arguments over the existence of God.

Science simply can't be delimited or defined by what science tries to investigate or what science can postulate. The essence of science is its powerful methodology, the ways that the sciences logically test their hypotheses against fresh evidence. The Enlightenment wall of separation has already fallen, brought down by science itself. Now we just need more scientists and philosophers (and of course everyone else) to notice.

Comments:

#1 Stormy Fairweather (Guest) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 at 4:20am

I always understood science to be the “Philosophy of Nature.”

And I always understood philosphy to be the application of reason.

And, finally, that one cannot reason with the unreasonable.

#2 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Thursday May 13, 2010 at 11:24am

——There is no limitation upon scientific imagination. John Shook

There are, however, limits on what science can process and it’s the legitimacy of the process and the results of that legitimate process that are the product of science.

You talk as if the processes of science and the product aren’t important.  And you seem to think that anything can be subjected to those processes when that’s totally untrue.  Nothing in the physical universe about which there is no data can be subjected to the processes of science.  Nothing outside of the physical universe (if such is there) has been subjected to the processes of science. 

——Science’s methodology of testing imagination through experimental inquiry is so powerful that it always pushes beyond whatever is taken to be ordinary and natural.  JS

However, again, it can only gather evidence from the physical universe, it can only process that evidence and analyze it.  What is “taken to be” at any given time doesn’t do anything to alter that fact of what science was invented to do and what it can do. 

Any idea stated by religion which doesn’t depend on physical data which is available to science is entirely immune to science.  Science can dispose of things like young earth creationism, many aspects of biblical fundamentalism and the such, but that’s on the basis of the physical evidence that shows those ideas aren’t compatible with the physical evidence.  It can dispose of some claims that people make about God, but it can’t dispose of a God which is proposed to transcend the physical universe and its laws.  To assert that science can do that has to ignore or fundamentally violate the very processes and requirements of science. 

When you don’t follow the methods and processes of science, what you get isn’t science, it’s something else.

#3 Stormy Fairweather (Guest) on Thursday May 13, 2010 at 4:54pm

The claim that god is made of spagetti remains on the same ‘platform’ of immunity as the claim that god exists at all.

#4 Lyndon (Guest) on Thursday May 13, 2010 at 5:44pm

First off, I thoroughly enjoyed the article by John, and am going to respond to Anthony’s comments.

Anthony: “Nothing in the physical universe about which there is no data can be subjected to the processes of science.”

If you only mean by this, that since we have no data on planet x in galaxy y, it is not a subject of “human 2010” science, I don’t find that a very interesting limit. Or that science hasn’t gotten to the problem or phenomena yet, well then science is still going to be the best way to get to that problem, eventually, as it has shown. In both these cases the “can be subjected” is the limitation of human knowledge/tools/perception at this point in time, but it “[may] be subjected,” in the future. It is not limited by scientific processes themselves, only by the present Human limits.

In your next sentence:  “Nothing outside of the physical universe (if such is there) has been subjected to the processes of science.”  This was pretty much the crux of the post. Eventhough science may not have an effective way to study or think about things outside the “physical universe,” I would say it is no more handicapped than any other epistemology on this issue. If non-physical objects interact and influence physical objects then science will measure that interactions and influence. If the non-physical stays in the realm of the non-physical and never interacts or influences the physical, the realm of souls, perhaps, . . . I don’t think we have much reason to worry about it, it isn’t of importance to us anyway.<right?>


On your second point Anthony, John answered why we shouldn’t worry about that:

“There is another tautology telling science where it can’t go—“science can’t investigate the supernatural to disprove God”. If supernatural means “utterly beyond the reach of empirical inquiry and human conception” then this tautology is valid. However, it really doesn’t limit science, but only limits theology. If theology really wants to be in the business of telling people to keep the faith in an utterly mysterious divinity, common sense rationality is enough for skeptically eroding that theology. Science doesn’t even have to worry itself with confronting theology on such vaporous ground—just let a little logic and philosophy handle such thin theology.” JS

I do not know if that is satisfactorily, but that directly addresses your claim.

Lyndon

#5 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Friday May 14, 2010 at 3:39am

—I don’t find that a very interesting limit.  Lyndon

Not everything that is important to acknowledge is interesting.  I’ve never been riveted by the commutative property of addition either.

—It is not limited by scientific processes themselves, only by the present Human limits.  Lyndon

This is more interesting because it’s a symptom of the weird idea that science exists outside of human minds.  Science is a human invention, it doesn’t exist anywhere except with “Human limits”.  Though a startlingly large number of the devotees of what they take to be science seem to believe it has some independent existence.  Which, while a wide spread delusion, is especially bizarre in the people who hold it.

—- If non-physical objects interact and influence physical objects then science will measure that interactions and influence.  Lyndon

That is also unknowable in any epistemological framework that is dependent on concepts derived from our knowledge or causal relationships, derived from our experience of the physical universe.  We have no way of knowing if any non-physical realm of existence would be subject to the same relationships, laws, etc, or if they might, in fact, be over them.  In which case the word “supernatural” would be appropriate. It’s entirely possible that a non-physical realm of existence permeates our physical reality unknown. In which case our assumptions about what we think about would have to take that into consideration as much as the reality of the finer structures of the physical universe were present in the best thinking about it before those were even suspected. 

Science can only be done with what’s known.  It can’t be done with what isn’t know and what’s unknowable in a way that can be incorporated into science.

Huge amounts of human experience can’t be HONESTLY incorporated into science because it is too complex, with large numbers of important aspects which aren’t treatable by science. I think science is being degraded by the claims that those can be dealt with in the best manner by science.  I think the degraded forms of “science” in the social and behavioral “sciences” are beginning to invade large parts of biology, which I know is a controversial idea but one which I’ve heard implied in a lot of what biologists say.  I don’t think the results are going to lead to a golden age of science.

#6 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Friday May 14, 2010 at 3:44am

—- The claim that god is made of spagetti remains on the same ‘platform’ of immunity as the claim that god exists at all. Stormy Fairweather

Well, you find me someone who really believes that god is made of spaghetti and we can go into the origin of that god made of a manufactured product.  I think you’ll find that any proposed god made of material will be far more subject to scientific investigation than any which are proposed which aren’t.  That is, if you really are interested in little things like logical coherence and honesty.

I will want to think about the implications of talking about a pasta god which might be copyrighted or trademarked in any published discussion of it.  But only the legal implications.

And this is the stuff of rational discussion?

#7 Nathan Phillips (Guest) on Friday May 28, 2010 at 3:30pm

You lost me in the third to last paragraph of #5.  To be supernatural, it is to be different from the world that we know.  If some other realm of existence were over or infused with our own, and behaved exactly as we expect this one to, that really isn’t supernatural.  If, for example, the other universe caused my car to jump 30 meters into the air and turn into a dove, that would be supernatural.  We would have some evidence of the car not being there anymore.

When people speak of the flying spaghetti monster, they are not speaking of anything particularly more preposterous than a god which appears as a flaming bush or an elephant-headed entity or the son of itself and some sort of spirit.  If one believes in a creator god, the association with the material world makes it just as testable by science. 

Does science exist outside of human minds?  There is no clear answer to that.  If you claim that it does not, then you are either claiming that God doesn’t do science or there is not God.  It would also simultaneously be a claim that no alien life could be doing science.  As a process, science exists both in human minds and in the material memes including books and the internet.  The say that anything is untestable by science can have two meanings.  One is that humans haven’t tested it, and won’t get to it any time soon, and the other is that it is utterly and completely impossible,even if people were there to test it.  Some of you opponents were merely pointing out that many things have been beyond the realm of science until mankind was capable of overcoming certain limitations.  The limitations were not permanent, and there is little that we can truthfully claim is a permanent limitation of science.

#8 Garth (Guest) on Tuesday June 08, 2010 at 10:02am

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