Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday Quote: Bradley Monton on Methodological Naturalism

"If science really is permanently committed to methodological naturalism – the philosophical position that restricts all explanations in science to naturalistic explanations -  it follows that the aim of science is not generating true theories. Instead, the aim of science would be something like: generating the best theories that can be formulated subject to the restriction that the theories are naturalistic. More and more evidence could come in suggesting that a supernatural being exists, but scientific theories wouldn’t be allowed to acknowledge that possibility."

- Bradley Monton, author of Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design

[HT: Faith Interface]


Jonathan West said...

There's just one small problem with that quote. What is being described where is not methodological naturalism, but naturalism.

Metaphysical naturalism is the claim that "nature is all there is", and therefore (by definition) there is a naturalistic explanation for everything.

Methodological naturalism is somewhat different - it is that that in terms of trying to make discoveries concerning the world around us, it doesn't actually matter very much whether we label them "natural" or "supernatural", the process of finding out about them is the same either way.

So if "more and more evidence" were to come in "suggesting that a supernatural being exists", far from not being "allowed to acknowledge that possibility", scientists would simply go about investigating this new phenomenon and seeing what they could learn about it.

Crude said...

"Methodological naturalism" means... well, that your methods - your scope of possible explanations, forces, and beings - are limited to the natural. The supernatural* really is ruled out by definition. Monton is correct - if there are "supernatural" explanations, forces, or beings at work, then methodological naturalism will remain blind to them. The "new phenomenon" scientists could seek to learn about would have to be a natural one.

(* Of course, both the "natural" and "supernatural" are notoriously hard to define in philosophy, so what this usually adds up to is a kind of ad hoc exclusion anyway.)

Matthew said...

I agree with Crude that methodological naturalism excludes supernatural explanations, but I have to ask if it's even possible to accept supernatural explanations in science? Science (and moreso, the technology grounded in this pursuit) is predicated on consistent, predictable results. Natural phenomena, because they follow deterministic patterns, grant us this predictability. Agency, on the other hand, is plagued by the problem of free will: the fickle mind can cause an action for reasons distinct from deterministic systems. Without knowing the mind of this agent, how are we to predict its actions and their resulting effects?

BallBounces said...

"Methodological naturalism" means... that intelligent design (ID), at least in its supernatural form, must be considered de facto unscientific. To the extent that proponents of methodological naturalism are also wedded to philosophical naturalism, it must also be considered de facto false.

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