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Practising Science Requires Methodological Naturalism

August 5th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 9 Comments

Methodological naturalism. Big word. Here’s what it means…

Consider the theory of gravity. An apple, unsupported by tree or table, falls. That is what it does. And it seems to do it every time. Hold an apple in the air, let go, it falls. It falls once, it falls twice, it falls a million times. And by that method, every time we test the theory of gravity, it holds. So eventually we come to the tentative conclusion: “apples will always fall”. But how can we really know that? What about the million-and-oneth time? It might behave differently if we do it one more time. It really might!

The answer is we can never know for certain.

We can boil water at sea level, a million times, and eventually conclude that water always boils at 100 degrees Celsius. And we would be wrong. It would be a theory that would eventually be proven wrong, when we eventually boil water at high altitude. The theory would have been falsified. For this reason, science works not by verifying the same experiment over and over again, but rather by attempting to disprove, over and over, and failing to do so. Find a single example that disproves a theory, and the theory has been shown to be incorrect. (Of course, there are various measures of incorrectness. Sometimes the theory can be revised and improved, sometimes it has to be scrapped.)

Now back to the apple. If, lo-and-behold, at one point we make the experiment and the apple doesn’t fall, observed under scientific conditions with no other force at play, the correct scientific conclusion is this: the theory of gravity is incorrect. This is how science works, and it works because science is practised under methodological naturalism. It is a term possibly coined by a conservative Christian to help distinguish between methodically approaching scientific experiments from a naturalistic perspective, and the philosophical stance of ontological naturalism, which states that the supernatural does not exist.

If the apple proved to float, just once, and we did not practice science from a methodological naturalistic approach, we could conclude “God has bent the rules of gravity, this once, to make the apple float”. That is all good and well, but how do we then make any scientific progress when theories do not match with predictions? Every single time a theory is proven incorrect, we could merely conclude “it is but divine intervention”.

This is no way to make progress in science, which is why science must be practised from a naturalistic perspective. Without accepting the falsification of a theory, how can we ever go about testing it? We would stick with “we’re ill because of supernatural forces”, there would be no reason to go look for germs and discover the germ theory for illness. That a heavy object and a light object fall at the same speed (e.g. in a vacuum, even a feather) could be attributed divine significance, and we wouldn’t revise our theories on gravity… We could look at the strange orbits of planets in our geocentric model for the universe, constructing ever-more complicated epicycle theories in order to fit the ever-more curious and inexplicable observations, because we believe God says the Earth is the centre of the universe and everything must therefore rotate around it. Or we might conclude the orbits are so intricate and utterly bizarre or silly-seeming, because “God is shuffling the planets around” to prove omnipotence.

Why? Because we selfishly need it in order to achieve some sense of wonder? Some sense of marvel at God’s creation? Isn’t it that much more marvellous and wonderful when we can comprehend how the orbits really work, how the earth rotates around the sun despite it feeling like we’re “standing still”? Eventually coming up with the remarkable theory of relativity by which we comprehend the utter marvellousness of a universe that has no centre, by which we can construct a Global Positioning System that requires taking into account how space and time warps near large mass and at speed? By which we can discover the source of illness and cure it with medicine? By which we can discover penicillin and cure disease? Create vaccinations against polio? Do you think Jesus would disapprove of us healing the sick?! WTF…

Methodological Naturalism is an absolute necessity in practising science, we would not have gotten this far if we didn’t embrace it. It is not about trying to push God out of the picture, it is merely about seeking greater understanding of this marvellous creation.

More Material: my old post titled What is Science? — I may want to revise it some time, but in the mean time, I believe you may find it enlightening.

Categories: Religion and Science
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9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kenneth Oberlander // Aug 5, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    Lovely post, Hugo. Thanks.

  • 2 Hugo // Aug 6, 2008 at 9:51 am

    And yes, if anyone asked, methodological naturalism was paramount in developing the germ theory of disease. I believe before that, illness was considered to be of spiritual origins. Certain illness was considered to be demonic possession. Then again, certain illness is still considered as such by some religious people, including some in Shofar.

    Picture a disease attributed to demons. A disease cured by swallowing a pill. “I drive thee out, demon, in Jesus’ name, by swallowing this here pill!” ?

  • 3 Wim Conradie // Aug 21, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    Hi Hugo

    Great post.

    Laat my so bietjie dink oor die korrelasie tussen wat mense as wonderwerke beskou. Statisties kan dit seker lyk of mense meer geneig is om goed aan wonderwerke toe te skryf as dit moeiliker is om die teenstelling te bewys.

    Bv. mense sal meer getuig van genesing as van anti-gravitasie wonderwerke.

    Die vraag wat jy in hierdie post vir my laat kry het is, dat as ek die trend reg het, is dit a.g.v.

    1. Menslike swakheid?
    2. God se keuse gewees om juis in sulke meer betwyfelbare situasies in te gryp?

  • 4 Hugo // Aug 22, 2008 at 1:54 am

    [Wim wonders about miracles and why the miracles most often reported are things that are not easily proven as divine intervention. I.e. He wonders why we hear about healings of internal illness more often than levitation, or, say, amputees.]

    Conservative theologians that believe in supernatural miracles typically justify the reason for miracles’ “ambiguity” to something along the lines of “God wants to give us a choice as to whether we want to believe he exists or not, and an unambiguous and clear miracle removes that choice”.

    Personally, I do find that a rather strange justification. Whether supernatural miracles really exist? I don’t know, I know I’ve not witnessed a supernatural miracle. Does God mind whether we believe in miracles or not?

    Theo Geyser (SG) suggested to me that the search/belief in supernatural miracles is often actually an example of unbelief, in that it is the kind of religion that requires proof and “presents”, continuous reaffirmation of something out-of-the-ordinary in their search for meaning, their walk with God.

    In my case, I like what I see of Peter Rollins’ approach expressed in the comments below his post To be an atheist you need God’s help. An excerpt:

    Thanks for the post. I actually write a chapter on the miraculous in Fidelity of Betrayal. But that dodges your question slightly as it tries to shift focus away from spectacle toward miracle as metanoia. Having said that I have indeed been direct witness to a whole host of interesting things which defy easy interpretation (some very very interesting). For me, my move away from the Charismatic tradition was not because I was stifled by it or because I never saw it working in peoples lives but rather because I wanted to step beyond what I considered to be a confusion between the idea of the ‘God of the philosophers’ and the ‘God of faith’.

    Metanoia, “repentance”, rethinking, coming to a new insight. He talks about a more subjective understanding of the concept of the miraculous then. And that is also the kind of miracle I witness, a natural miracle. For example then the miracle of presenting the poor from isolated nations (how do I refer to them?) with free eye care, and glasses… I recall some involvement from some people at Stellenbosch Gemeente? They went and provided people with the miracle of increased sight.

    As an experience of metanoia, it’s the kind of thing that can present the recipient with new appreciation for everything, and a demonstration of love in how we care for one another and help one another out. That’s the kind of miracle I believe in.

    The supernatural ones? I don’t really know what that is anymore. My concept of God has developed into a concept that does not break the laws of nature. If I witness something that looks “miraculous”, I will naturally try to understand how it works. But I will still appreciate its “miraculous nature”, in a natural way — the importance for me is in the appreciation and the recognition of wonder, not in the believing in supernatural intervention.

    To me it then boils down to “we are God’s hands and feet, and it is up to us to demonstrate miracles to one another”, demonstrations of love.

    I hope that gives some perspective on my views as well, maybe clarifying our earlier chat, or my mention of my divergence from classical Christianity back in June, after that talk at NG Central?

    I don’t pray for rain, I lack a belief that God adjusts weather patterns for us. With regards to others praying for rain, I believe it helps bring about a positive anticipation that helps appreciate the miracle that is the rain that comes anyway… So, does that therefore make me an unbeliever?

  • 5 Wim Conradie // Aug 22, 2008 at 10:46 am

    Appreciate your thoughts

    I have witnessed a lot of miracles in my live. And
    if I want to objective, I must admit there was none that could not have a natural explanation.

    But I really want to believe it still happens. And I also get really excited when people testify about supernatural divine changes in their lives (although I sometimes wonder about the authenticity).

    Why would God stop now? Jesus performed supernatural miracles, right? And didn’t the first Christians (about 250 AD) also witnessed supernatural miracles? Or else if you are right, did God change in the mean time? Or should we questions our interpretation of that parts in the Bible? *Sigh*… so many questions 🙂

    At least I know, that I do 100% believe in my Almighty God, and therefore that anything is possible, provided God approves.

  • 6 Kenneth Oberlander // Aug 22, 2008 at 10:58 am

    Hugo, wouldn’t that make you a deist, then?


  • 7 Hugo // Aug 22, 2008 at 11:26 am

    @Wim, I hear ya. The way I understand it, Peter Rollins style interpretation of miracles as metanoia would focus more on the meaning and the experience of the miracles than the supernatural nature of them. By that kind of non-literal interpretation, the Bible becomes stories people told about certain events, and the miracles performed by Jesus are much more about their meaning than their supernatural nature.

    So the point here then is, the questions you have in e.g. your first comment are not the kind that I can answer for you, if you’re looking for answers for someone that embraces the supernaturally-miraculous. Just so you know… questions are welcome but my answers might not be the kind you want to hear.

    In any case, I don’t play answers anyway, I want to encourage people to think: find you own answers. For that reason my goal on this website is simply to provoke thought. 😉

    @Kenneth, no, I’m not a deist. Deists believe God put the universe in motion and then didn’t have further involvement. The way my concept of God developed lately keeps God very involved, and not a prime-mover original-cause entity, rather a kind of principle. Um… this sounds all quite lamely meh, but I’m still hacking on getting my concept explained well enough.

    Like a friend (Jacobus) said on Facebook (my “First Two or Three Commandments” post received two comments on Facebook so far, which I hope to share in comments below the post later, with permission of their authors):

    Tweedens, is God juis, per definisie, onbepaald. Daar is mystery, onsekerheid, oopheid. Elke definisie van God verklein God.

    Translated to English, Amplified-translation style (because I’m not good enough to find the perfect word to represent his sentiments):

    Secondly, God is, after all, by definition, [undetermined/undefined/uncertain]. There is mystery, uncertainty, openness. Every definition of God [shrinks/limits/reduces] God.

    The whole comment in context is more important, know that I think his comment was great.

    Anyway, getting back to the point then: I will try to explain my concept “well enough”, but it will not be a dictionary definition. It will never be…

  • 8 Kenneth Oberlander // Aug 22, 2008 at 11:38 am

    Secondly, God is, after all, by definition, [undetermined/undefined/uncertain]. There is mystery, uncertainty, openness. Every definition of God [shrinks/limits/reduces] God.


    This makes no sense to me. The first sentence directly contradicts itself. Not to mention that the first sentence leads, logically through the third sentence, to a reduction of god.

    If you cannot define god, then what possible use is the concept at all? Even defining god as undefined is defining god!

    The moment you ascribe an action, or a thought, or indeed anything to god, then you are implicitly defining certain aspects of his character and history.

  • 9 Hugo // Aug 22, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    Hehe, Kenneth don’t like no paradoxes. 😉

    And I label myself as someone that rejects all labels. (It’s kinda demonstrating the same idea.)

    So the point then, the first sentence is not a “logical contradiction” (though literally it may be), it’s more of a paradox. I’d point out “God” is in Meh.

    That last paragraph though, yes, that’s about right. People ascribe different things to the idea of “God”, thereby ascribing different things to this vague and undefined idea. It boils back down to people having different ideas and understandings of what “God” is, and this particular understanding evolves with time. (Can be seen by reading the Bible with it connected to the time line it was written in.)

    I’ve heard theologians point out that God is a mirror in which humans see themselves. I.e. if you have a violent notion/understanding of God, it is basically rather a mirror of yourself.

    Um, and that’s not a definition, that’s describing functions/properties. And the word-choice is always rather nuanced, and I’m lazy right now: say it one way and it sounds too much like “God is a projection of your own psyche”, which is not what they mean. I’d go with a “there is this enigmatic ideal, of which we all see but a little, but the little we see is shaped by our own hearts. What we see reflects the state of our hearts.”

    And then there’s cause-and-effect: there isn’t a clear cause and a clear effect, it flows both ways. Coming to a new understanding of God is a “metanoia event”, and can be a life-changing experience. Take Al (get past his big ad passionate monologues), coming to a new understanding of an ideal to live a life by (God as Abba/Father), he turned from a life of (insert whatever here) to one where he cares passionately about the children. The heart of a father. And it is beautiful. Naturally he brings his own character and history and personality into it, that aggressive passion that results in us being treated to the occasional (ok, regular) magnum opus. Such is the marvel of human diversity. 😉

    Either way, Kenneth, don’t break your head over it. 😉

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