In past discussions with friends concerning science, including specific issues such as creationism and evolution, few subjects have consumed more attention than methodological naturalism (MN). MN is a guiding principle of secular and theistic scientists alike. Under modern principles of MN, scientists are strictly guided by the concept that in science, only natural effects are studied. MN poses a stumbling block for science laypersons if issues surrounding it are misunderstood.
Robert Boyle, an early pioneer of the Scientific Revolution, helped establish the methodological principles of the revolution. He said “Natural Philosophy’s task is to explain phenomena of creation in terms of natural processes.” Natural philosophy became known as “science” as the Scientific Revolution progressed. MN, therefore, is worth our effort to understand thoroughly, along with the potential for its misunderstanding. Perhaps one important area of misunderstanding is the confusion between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism. Hereafter we abbreviate methodological naturalism as MN while we spell out metaphysical naturalism in its entirety. In our time MN is still the guiding principle of science methodology while theistic beliefs are put in abeyance. In metaphysical naturalism, operative science methodology is identical but there are no theistic beliefs whatever. We credit Wheaton professor of Philosophy and History of Science Robert C. Bishop’s article, “God and Methodological Naturalism in the Scientific Revolution and Beyond” for many ideas expressed in this post.
The focus of MN at the beginning of the Scientific Revolution was discovering what kind of creation God had made and how God was at work in and through creation. “Focusing on natural causes in no way implied that God was absent from creation nor even that God was somehow excluded from explanations of how creation worked,” according to Bishop. Robert Boyle believed God could intervene in the natural course of things, but he focused on understanding creation on its own terms. Even though very little was known of the fossil record in the time of Boyle, we imagine that his thinking may have allowed for historical supernatural introductions of new species on occasion. The astonishing evidence left in the rocks by Cambrian Explosion events consists of sudden appearances of hundreds of new life forms without precursors and never before seen. We stress, however, that Robert Boyle is best known for researching secondary causes manifest in the world of nature created by God: “Natural philosophy’s task is to explain phenomena of creation in terms of natural processes,” he stated. This statement defines MN as a description of what scientists do in their normal investigative processes.
Boyle’s concept of natural philosophy was soon challenged by a rival philosophy as the 17th century progressed. MN in its pure form is challenged by another species of naturalism—metaphysical naturalism—which has gained a strong foothold in the science profession. Bishop asks a disturbing question: “If the scientific revolutionaries were theists who deployed MN in the service of discovering the nature of God’s creation, then what happened in the intervening centuries such that the sciences and their methodologies are now routinely disassociated from God?” Even though a diverse company of scientists since the Scientific Revolution were staunchly Christian, many scientists, theologians, pastors, and authors found it challenging to debate whether the physical creation events were shaped by divine command, or merely mediated by divine command. The difference between shaped and mediated may be described as a distinction between explicit acts of transcendent creation versus God merely “looking on” from afar. God arbitrarily and unpredictably intervening in creation became “psychologically jarring to a majority of theists,” according to Bishop’s view: Deism was becoming the intellectual trend as the 18th century approached.
Deism as a form of rational theology embracing a religion of nature emerged in the writing of many intellectuals. Traditional Christian beliefs by some early American settlers were weakened by the foothold of deism. Many have come to believe America was founded on a deistic belief system. Foundational Christian beliefs were sometimes cast as unenlightened. Supernaturalism was sometimes viewed as superstition as contemporary spirituality replaced traditional spirituality. No miracles were needed. Only natural laws were necessary.
This 17th/18th century deism was the precursor of an even more radical change in store with the approach of the 19th century. Optimism that science revealed truths about the glory of the work of the divine Creator of Scripture gave way to confidence in the power of naturalism and disbelief on the question of the existence of God among wide segments of the science community. The discoveries of science did not serve as apologetic support for the existence of God as either Creator or Sustainer. The epistemological value of science was perceived in different ways by the theist and non-theist.
We contemplate additional posts covering 19th century developments and in particular, the ascendancy of Charles Darwin. Metaphysical naturalism, also known as philosophical naturalism or ontological naturalism, was on the way. Theistic creationists would do well to study the significance of these terms as they connect with our view of the philosophy of science.
This post may not be inspirational for enthusiasts of the apologetic value of science. We acknowledge the challenge of using explicit scientific evidence to support belief in the reality of God and his works. There is, however, much value in examining the natural world to determine what we may learn from its orderly, purposeful, functional design characteristics.