Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Methodological Confusion

“I believe methodological naturalism is a good operating principle for scientific discovery.” Your Ankerberg science blogger wrote this on his 9/15/2009 post. Lacking full knowledge of what this important term means and how it is used by science professionals, some science laypersons may be confused. At worst this confusion could cause misunderstanding concerning the operation of science.

One reason for laypersons’ uncertainty is the manner in which the term methodological naturalism (MN) is defined. We begin with the Rational Wiki website’s upfront definition of MN: “Methodological naturalism is the required assumption (emphasis mine) of philosophical naturalism when working with the scientific method.” Philosophical naturalism, also called metaphysical naturalism or ontological naturalism, is the doctrine that the natural world is all there is.

Here is a key element in the confusion referenced in our opening paragraph. According to Rational Wiki (a secular, skeptical website dedicated to countering their self-defined concepts of pseudoscience, including the ID and creationist movements) the majority of scientists do not believe it is possible to combine methodological naturalism with theistic or supernatural belief systems. Rational Wiki states that in the United States approximately 60% of scientists endorse full philosophical naturalism, and that in foreign countries the percentage is even higher. Many scientists state an obvious outcome of this thinking. They claim “philosophical naturalism is essentially the logical result of methodological naturalism.” Many evangelical theistic evolutionist friends do not agree with this analysis but the perception remains embedded in the thinking of secular scientists.

Returning to the Rational Wiki definition of MN, we focus on “the required assumption of philosophical naturalism when working with the scientific method.” Scientists instruct us that in science we investigate only natural phenomena, never supernatural phenomena. We illustrate with an example from a legal crime investigation where there is often a cause/effect determination: “Who set fire to the barn?” In personal investigations there is often a similar search for phenomena of cause/effect in answer to our questions such as: “Why did our rotisserie meat overcook?” In such examples, assuming intelligent agents or causes are not involved is counterproductive. Are we reminded of the science definition of MN? Are predetermined assumptions helpful? Perhaps assumptions should take a back seat to full scope investigations and thoughtful cataloging of a wide variety of possible causes, however unlikely they may be.

As we listen to political commentary we often hear politicians calling for investigations of one sort or another. Such calls are frequently inspired by unusual or rare circumstances. Investigations are not inspired by assumptions. We ask why scientists who subscribe to the principle of MN would begin with assumptions rather than full scale and all-inclusive investigations. In the case of the ever popular questions on evolution, if we assume anything, let us assume that all possibilities should be included, including the possibility that God has intervened miraculously along the timeline of life’s history on Earth on occasion. Along the timeline of Earth history, evidence of sudden input of novel information for life forms has the hallmarks of divine creation acts.

I repeat my 9/15/2009 assertion: “I believe methodological naturalism is a good operating principle for scientific discovery.” Take note that “assumption” does not appear in my definition. Careful study of God-inspired natural laws by which the world operates daily are consistent with our endorsement of MN.

Many early scientists of the Scientific Revolution took full account of the glory of God’s past creation achievements. In like manner today’s theistic scientists still work under that umbrella. There is no assumption that God has not acted to create natural laws. Neither is there any assumption that God could not supernaturally create again. Early advocates of MN were too busy discovering how to “understand phenomena on its own terms” to be concerned with assumptions concerning the existence or non-existence of a supernatural Creator. Scientists have manifested a sort of “theological neutrality” but not because they do not believe in the existence and power of the Creator who is worthy of our humble worship.