Science and Methodological Naturalism

My friend, Clifford Goldstein, editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, just published a short article discussing science and the limits of methodological naturalism that is thought to limit scientific investigations to only those things that have natural causes (Cliff’s Edge, Adventist Review, Feb. 2019).

Science does not address spiritual, theological, or supernatural questions, Erv insists, and so even if the witch doctor did supernaturally cause the sickness by curses and sacrifice, science would have nothing to say about it. Not because science necessarily denies these things (to deny them would be to address them) but because science does not address these things any more than particle physics addresses why Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” is a better drama than Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera.” Science, Erv loves to tell me, doesn’t touch religious questions. Or, to quote from the National Academy of Science, the secular holies of holies:

“The statements of science must invoke only natural things and processes.”

Of course, Cliff sees inconsistencies here, especially when it comes to those who hold to the concept of “theistic evolution”, as his friend Erv does.

Contrary to my good friend Erv, it’s not because I don’t understand methodological naturalism but because I do that I find it so problematic, especially when employed by theistic evolutionists who claim to believe that the theos behind evolution is the God depicted in the Genesis creation account. They just can’t talk about Him, that’s all, even though Genesis makes Him and His supernatural creative power central to the whole creation process itself…

If the methodological naturalism of theistic evolutionists seems muddled, even self-contradictory, it’s because it’s both.


Phil Brantley, a lawyer, wrote an interesting response as follows:

Dilthey’s approach still holds. He differentiates the natural sciences from the human sciences. The mode of reasoning for the natural sciences is erklaren (cause-based reasoning) and the mode of reasoning for the human sciences is verstehen (intuitive reasoning). The natural sciences are governed by the scientific method, which adheres strictly to methodological naturalism, and the human sciences are governed by hermeneutics. Hermeneutics takes an existential, ontological turn with Heidegger and Gadamer, many human sciences have endeavored to function, with mixed results, like natural sciences, and there is a small body of literature (which I find largely unmeritorious) that urges that hermeneutics play a role in the natural sciences, but Dilthey’s approach continues to persuade.

Methodological naturalism must remain inviolate in the natural sciences and most Seventh-day Adventists would do a better job in their theological thinking if they were to learn hermeneutics.

Theistic evolution can never advance beyond a speculative notion. We can speculate that God kickstarted evolution. We can speculate that the plant in my living room lives because there are fourteen angels giving the plant sustenance. But we cannot advance beyond these speculative notions, because they are employing not just one mode of reasoning and one methodology but two irreconcilable modes of reasoning and two irreconcilable methodologies. In other words, because the respective modes of reasoning and the respective methodologies of the natural sciences and the human sciences are irreconcilable, there is no way to advance beyond the speculative notion of theistic evolution. We would have to devise a new mode of reasoning and a new methodology for the study of theistic evolution. And we would have to ensure that both are not self-contradictory. This has not been done; to do such a thing would be like trying to mix oil and water. If science and the biblical text were in agreement about origins, as they are in agreement about other things, we would not have a problem. But given the present disagreement about origins, neither theology nor science, given their inherent limitations, are capable of working together to effectuate agreement. Instead, one will be forced to yield to the other.

I personally don’t see it this way. Here’s my own take on science and methodological naturalism:

I don’t think scientific methodologies are as incapable of detecting the existence of God-like intelligence as you seem to suggest. After all, there are entire scientific disciplines devoted to the detection of intelligent design – to include forensic science, anthropology and even SETI science.

SETI scientists are looking for evidence of non-human intelligences coming from other worlds in the universe. And, such efforts are not outside of the realm of scientific possibility. For example, if the Mars rover were to come across a highly symmetrical polished granite cube with geometric etchings in the center of each face of the cube, everyone would immediately recognize such a discovery as an obvious artifact of intelligent design. The same is true for radio signals carrying mathematical “tags” – such as the first 50 terms in the Fibonacci series. The scientific conclusion would be fairly obvious in such situations because the only known source of such artifacts is intelligent design.

The fact is that science is quite capable of detecting various artifacts as requiring the input of intelligent design – at various levels of intelligence and creative power. The same thing is true of living things on this planet. Beyond the lowest levels of functional complexity, there is simply no viable naturalistic mechanism that can explain the origin of the higher levels of informational complexity that are found in every living thing. Natural selection and random genetic mutations simply cannot create anything beyond the lowest levels of functional complexity this side of a practical eternity of time. The arguments for abiogenesis where life comes from non-life are completely out to lunch, statistically speaking, without any real scientific support whatsoever (Link). That is why the continued claims for a naturalistic mechanism as being responsible are simply not scientifically tenable – any more so than proposing that a radio signal with the first 50 terms of the Fibonacci series probably had a mindless naturalistic origin of some kind.

Of course, one might argue, at this point, that while intelligence was clearly required to produce life on this planet, that a God-like intelligence wasn’t necessarily required – just some very intelligence alien of some kind with perfectly “natural”, rather than “supernatural”, intelligence. That proposal might be reasonably entertained, but there are even greater levels of intelligence displayed in our universe that would require such a high level of intelligence and creative power so as to be effectively indistinguishable from a God or a God-like power (such as the creation of the universe itself with all of its extremely fined-tuned features necessary to support complex life). After all, any intelligence that is significantly superior to human intelligence would be difficult to distinguish from God-like intelligence. Yet, it would still be within the realm of detectability as “intelligent”, none-the-less, even by scientists using the very same scientific reasoning that forms the basis for forensic or SETI sciences.

In any case, it is silly to limit our God-given reasoning abilities to only those things that mindless natural mechanisms can explain. Not even “natural” scientists would do that, in all situations, if they are honest with themselves.





10 thoughts on “Science and Methodological Naturalism

    • Evidently you and I have a different definition of “science” or “miracles” or both. In any case, it seems downright self-evident to me that someone who is smarter than I am or who has access to higher level technology can do things that would appear to me to be “miraculous” from my more limited perspective, but which would appear to that individual to be perfectly “natural” from that higher-level perspective.

      Of course, despite being from a more limited perspective, I would still be able to rationally detect that the seemingly “miraculous” phenomena would require intelligence to produce – i.e., that they weren’t the result of mindless natural mechanisms. I can do this using the very same reasoning abilities and methods that physical scientists use to detect intelligent design behind various artifacts that are or that could be found in nature – as in forensic science, anthropology, or SETI science.

      In the same way, even physical scientists, if they personally saw something like the Resurrection, would recognize it as a miracle of intelligent design and superhuman power. They would not propose that some mindless naturalistic mechanism was actually responsible – if they were being honest with themselves.

      This is true even when it comes to more mundane phenomena – such as the discovery of a chocolate cake. From the human perspective the discovery of a chocolate cake on my kitchen counter wouldn’t seem all that miraculous (especially if I knew my wife were around). However, the existence of a chocolate cake, given the assumption of only mindless natural mechanisms in play, would be very miraculous indeed!

      It is for this reason that atheistic scientists, like Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Krauss for example, are the ones who believe in true miracles – to the point where absolutely nothing can and did produce everything. Now, that’s a miracle! – even more of a miracle than believing that an eternal God made it all if you ask me. These guys are the one’s with great faith. But, it’s just not the kind of faith that is reasonable given the evidence in hand nor will it do them any good in the long run…


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      • True science wants to know “how” and not who. Even if we admit some intelligence involved, that is not the point. But “how” did the “who” create and they want natural law affirmation of the format the God used.

        “He spoke and it was done, He commanded and it stood fast.”

        Tell a scientist this and he will laugh you to scorn. That God created is not the miracle, but how He did it is. And this, no one can “prove” by science or any natural law explanation.


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        • True science often doesn’t reveal how a particular phenomenon happens, only that it does in fact predictably happen in certain specific situations. When Sir Isaac Newton first described the effects of gravity, he had absolutely no idea “how” gravity worked. Newton wrote:

          Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws; but whether this agent be material or immaterial, I have left open to the consideration of my readers.

          Yet, even though Newton didn’t know “how” gravity worked, no one would argue that he wasn’t using scientific reasoning to describe its very predictable effects.

          The same is often true in medicine in that it is often the case that it is known that a certain treatment or medication consistently works to produce a particular result, but exactly how this result is achieved is unknown.

          That’s just the nature of science. Science can detect certain predictable relationships, certain predictable cause and effects, without knowing “how” a suspected cause produced or produces the phenomenal effect.

          As far as “methodological naturalism” is concerned, the problem with this concept is that many scientists are arguing that only mindless natural causes should ever even be considered when trying to explain all natural phenomena. This is an obvious inconsistency that has nothing to do with explaining exactly “how” an intelligent agent produced a particular phenomena that would seem to demand intelligent input.

          For example, I might not know how to make a chocolate cake myself, but I can still know that it required intelligent design when I see one. The same thing is true of highly symmetrical granite cubes or a radio signal tagged with the first 50 terms of the Fibonacci series or a Shakespearean sonnet or the information in the DNA sequence of a bacterium beyond the lowest levels of functional complexity.

          And, mainstream scientists would agree with me with every one of these points with the exception of the last one. Why is that? Because, the last point, admitting design behind the basic informational complexity of living things, is too close to admitting the existence of a God or a God-like creative mind. And, of course, this suggests the existence of definitive moral responsibility – which atheistic scientists, like Lawrence Krauss for example, are strongly opposed. When questioned about the inconsistencies of his argument for infinite numbers of universes as an explanation for the fined tuned features of our universe necessary to support complex life, amazingly, Krauss responded as follows:

          You talk about this god of love and everything else. But somehow if you don’t believe in him, you don’t get any of the benefits, so you have to believe. And then if you do anything wrong, you’re going to be judged for it. I don’t want to be judged by god; that’s the bottom line (podcast: 58:01).

          (Lawrence Krauss in 2012 debate with Rodney Holder – Course director at the Faraday Institute, Cambridge.)

          So, you see, it really isn’t about “science” or rationally-derived interpretations of various phenomena or forms of empirical evidence. When push comes to shove, it all boils down to trying to avoid moral responsibility…


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        • “When push comes to shove, it all boils down to trying to avoid moral responsibility…”

          That’s right. And since you can not “prove” that the intelligence who created nature is also “God” of the universe, except by the bible, you are still far from persuading anyone of any specific morality.

          So you still have not accomplished any Christian goal by affirming some intelligent design.

          The bible affirms itself and the God who created by prophecy. Any other attempt is as I stated, futile. And this is why prophecy concerning the historical process is in the bible alone as the only valid and provable evidence for the creator God and who He is.

          And then moral accountability is equally affirmed after the evidence is affirmed, namely, prophecy.

          Then the bible can affirm that Jesus is the creator. And everything else is equally validated on the same basis. Prophecy…….that’s it.


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        • It was King David who said:

          The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. – Psalms 19:1-4

          And, it was Paul who said:

          For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. – Romans 1:20

          Mrs. White also wrote of the use of scientific investigation of nature in the search for a knowledge of God:

          In the study of the sciences also, we are to obtain a knowledge of the Creator. All true science is but an interpretation of the handwriting of God in the material world. Science brings from her research only fresh evidences of the wisdom and power of God. Rightly understood, both the book of nature and the written word make us acquainted with God by teaching us something of the wise and beneficent laws through which he works. – E. G. White, Christian Education, p. 66

          Clearly, then, the Bible itself also promotes the idea that God can be recognized as God through the study of the works of His hands – of the empirical evidence found in nature (as does Mrs. White). Sure, the Bible gives a much clearer and more detailed revelation of God and His character, but do not discount the ability of nature to reveal important truths about her Creator for those who are open to taking their first steps toward God. Many scientists have been converted to the Christian Gospel message after first having recognized a Divine Hand behind various features of the universe and the world in which we live. Such steps are often the very first steps that some must take before additional steps can be taken toward a fuller discovery and relationship with God.

          “When I began my career as a cosmologist some twenty years ago, I was a convinced atheist. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that one day I would be writing a book purporting to show that the central claims of Judeo-Christian theology are in fact true, that these claims are straightforward deductions of the laws of physics as we now understand them. I have been forced into these conclusions by the inexorable logic of my own special branch of physics.”

          Frank Tipler (Professor of Mathematical Physics), Tipler, F.J. 1994. The Physics Of Immortality. New York, Doubleday, Preface

          See also:

          Also, consider that the determination of the Divine origin of the Bible itself, through the study of Biblical prophecy as it compares to empirically-verifiable history, is a form of scientific investigation…


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        • Well, Sean, this article is about Dr. Taylor and his argument to negate the bible. Maybe you and Goldstein can persuade him with your arguments.

          The evidences of nature function as a “law that is a schoolmaster” to lead us to the bible. “The heavens declare the glory of God…….” but still does not tell us who God is nor the function of His government concerning the moral law.

          In fact, natural law is so convoluted by sin that “survival of the fittest” is the only logical conclusion.

          At any rate, I wish you well in your endeavors to support the creation account in scripture.
          Take care.


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        • Persuasion is the job of the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to persuade someone who is not open to the voice of God speaking to the heart and mind. Not even Jesus was able to persuade those who closed their hearts and minds to the voice of the Spirit and to their God-given reasoning abilities…

          In any case, your quotation of Galatians 3:24-25 seems out of context. The “Law” Paul is speaking of here which functions as a “schoolmaster” is the Ten Commandments which leads us until we find completeness in Christ through faith – at which point the schoolmaster is no longer needed. The same is not true of the natural world which is no longer needed once the Bible is found. That’s not true at all. The study of nature and of God’s Word shed light on each other. They are both God’s revelations of Himself and, as such, the study of both is important to learn and grow in the understanding of the nature and character of God.

          Since the book of nature and the book of revelation bear the impress of the same master mind, they cannot but speak in harmony. By different methods and in different languages they witness to the same great truths. Science is ever discovering new wonders, but from its research it brings nothing that, rightly understood, conflicts with divine revelation. The book of nature and the written Word shed light on each other. They make us acquainted with God by teaching us something of the laws through which He works. (E.G. White, True Education, p. 77)

          God is the foundation of everything. All true science is in harmony with His works; all true education leads to obedience to His government. Science opens new wonders to our view; she soars high and explores new depths; but she brings nothing from her research that conflicts with divine revelation. Ignorance may seek to support false views of God by appeals to science; but the book of nature and the written Word do not disagree; each sheds light on the other. Rightly understood, they make us acquainted with God and His character by teaching us something of the wise and beneficent laws through which He works. (E.G. White, The Signs of the Times, March 20, 1884)

          Again, while the Bible most certainly gives us a much more detailed picture of God, many attributes of God can be learned through the study of nature alone that cannot be as clearly recognized through the study of the Bible alone… so that even those who never had access to the Bible are “without excuse”. This is true despite nature being marred by sin. That is why having access to both the books of nature and the written Word is most ideal. One, without the other, leaves one handicapped, but not completely in the dark regarding the nature and character of God.


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  1. Of interest, Richard Dawkins (in a little-noticed passage in The Blind Watchmaker, pages 1 and 2) has conceded that design can be empirically detected. The passage reads:

    … Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose. Physics is the study of simple things that do not tempt us to invoke design. At first sight, man-made artefacts like computers and cars will seem to provide exceptions. They are complicated and obviously designed for a purpose, yet they are not alive, and they are made of metal and plastic rather than of flesh and blood. In this book they will be firmly treated as biological objects.
    …Never mind whether cars and computers are ‘really’ biological objects. The point is that if anything of that degree of complexity were found on a planet, we should have no hesitation in concluding that life existed, or had once existed, on that planet. Machines are the direct products of living objects; they derive their complexity and design from living objects, and they are diagnostic of the existence of life on a planet. …

    He doesn’t quite finish the thought; cars and computers are evidence that not just life, but intelligent life, once existed on a planet. But the fact of the matter is that everybody, including Dawkins, knows that for all objects except life itself, for which a special exception is pleaded, specified complexity is a reliable indication of intelligent design. Which means that whether or not the Divine can be detected, design detection is firmly within the domain of science. Methodological naturalism cannot properly exclude it from science.


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    • Very interesting passage. After all, if scientists are honest with themselves, scientific methodologies are well-able to detect the existence of intelligent design behind various artifacts found in nature. It’s just the personal philosophy of scientists that makes them put living things and the origin of the fine-tuned universe “out of bounds” when it comes to the detection of intelligent design. This conclusion simply isn’t dictated by science itself, but by a philosophical position, a type of religion actually, that strives to block the Divine Foot from getting into the door…


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