Secularism and Methodological Naturalism

October 25, 2010

Last week, I had the good fortune of spending a couple days giving talks in Massachusetts, a beautiful state that is particularly gorgeous this time of the year. On Tuesday, I spoke about secularism to a humanist group in Worcester. On Wednesday, I participated in a panel discussion on religion at Tufts University, hosted by a student freethought group.

The event in Worcester marked the first time I was giving that particular talk, which was based on my Master’s thesis. I proposed that instead of focusing on religion, secularists ought to promote inclusive, robust, yet critical and naturalistic discussion on moral beliefs and values, within both our social and political discourse. I then addressed how we might go about doing that. This drew a good deal of constructive response – concerning the consistency of my message, points that need polishing, implications of my ideas, and their practical application. Much of this feedback was sorely needed, and will be incorporated into a revised and improved lecture. Yet one suggestion reminded me of an idea I had months ago, but never fleshed out: about the methodology of secularism as it might relate to a distinction in philosophy of science.

During the final part of my presentation, I proposed something called a public peer review. The public peer review is based on an analogy with academic peer review. In its simplest and broadest senses, academic peer review features learned people in a field continually refereeing each other’s work. This process encompasses three basic steps: (1) you conduct research and analyze its results; (2) you submit your ideas to others in the field; and (3) you receive feedback, get rejected, accepted, rethink and/or respond.

Put into the framework of public discourse, and with the focus on morality, an analogous public peer review would be the process through which people continually test their moral ideas against a community of others, and the ideas of others as well. The equivalent three steps are: (1) contemplate your moral views; (2) enter them into public debate; (3) receive feedback, rethink and/or respond. There is much more to this idea – it was an entire chapter in my thesis – but you get the point: I’m taking a cue from science and rational thought and applying it to public discourse. This is where the feedback I received in Worcester comes back into the picture. One fellow approached me and said, “I would be interested to see you apply more scientific ideas to discourse.”

I quickly remembered a thought that popped into my head when reading a seminal paper by philosopher of science Barbara Forrest, on the differences and connections between philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism. In that paper, Forrest starts with a definition of methodological naturalism offered by philosopher Paul Kurtz:

“[Methodological] naturalism is committed to a methodological principle within the context of scientific inquiry; i.e., all hypotheses and events are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events. To introduce a supernatural or transcendental cause within science is to depart from naturalistic explanations. On this ground, to invoke an intelligent designer or creator is inadmissible.”

Forrest continues in her own words:

“Methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism are distinguished by the fact that methodological naturalism is an epistemology as well as a procedural protocol, while philosophical naturalism is a metaphysical position. … Methodological naturalism does exclude the supernatural as an explanatory principle because it is unknowable by means of scientific inquiry, whereas philosophical naturalism, both by definition and because of the methodological and epistemological inaccessibility of the supernatural, excludes the latter from its ontological scheme.”

In short, methodological naturalism means that for one to do science, one must look for empirical evidence and natural explanations, and not rely on faith and the supernatural. The point is that a scientist need not be without faith or belief in the supernatural whatsoever. Philosophical naturalism is the stronger view that nature is all there is (I subscribe to this). Yet one need not commit to this – to atheism or any other sort of nonbelief – to do science.

My immediate thought was this: put into the context of morality, religion, and political life, philosophical naturalism is to atheism as methodological naturalism is to secularism.

Philosophical naturalism, and hence atheism, are metaphysical stances or positions about the world. But methodological naturalism and secularism are more like “procedural protocols,” to epistemological views of the process. Just as one can believe in some form of the supernatural or God and do science, one could believe in some form of the supernatural or God and be a secularist. He or she just needs to deal with questions of morality and law not by recourse to faith or the supernatural, but through the use of natural reasons and evidence.

To illustrate the similarities in approach between methodological naturalism and secularism, consider the debate over abortion, specifically as it relates to the soul. Philosophical naturalism and atheism represent a lack of belief in such a religious and metaphysical concept. They posit that the soul almost certainly does not exist, and perhaps even offer reasons why it doesn't. However, methodological naturalism and secularism are less concerned with the soul’s existence, and more concerned with having people make arguments on the issue based on real world evidence. That is, one can believe in the soul, but he or she cannot point to that argument in the debate over abortion and expect it to carry the day. He or she must provide reasons we can all grasp and critically assess.

To be sure, there are differences between methodological naturalism and secularism. Methodological naturalism excludes the supernatural because it is unknowable by means of scientific inquiry. Secularism excludes the supernatural because in a pluralistic and democratic society, people cannot access others’ faiths. Reliable, shared knowledge and values in the political realm can only come from the natural world. Methodological naturalism and secularism are also supported by distinctive reasons, and address different spheres of concern. Methodological naturalism addresses empirical evidence and the rules of science, while secularism is about philosophical debate relating to religion, morality, and political life. But these do not invalidate the comparison, for my point is that the two seem to call for a similar procedure in reasoning and deliberating.

Illustrating the secular approach through methodological naturalism might allow us a deeper and richer understanding of the nature of secularism, and our engagement in social and political discourse. This has spawned a number of ideas in my mind related to, but broader than, the talk I gave in Worcester. But I suppose I should await your response before getting to work on that.

Note: this essay was originally published on the blog Rationally Speaking