There’s an interesting new series of YouTube videos (of which I confess to having heard only two so far) of a conference discussing alternatives to methodological naturalism. The organiser is, of course, an ID group – which is hardly surprising, as according to most mainstream scientists MN is just fine and dandy. What you don’t doubt, you don’t examine that carefully. But as I’ve been suggesting here and here there is at least an argument for its being a hindrance not only to the consideration of God’s role in nature, but also to some aspects of understanding nature itself.
The introductory talk, by Jonathan Bartlett, is here:
It is useful particularly in showing how many contortions methodological naturalism, as first conceived, has had to go through in its history, in order to accommodate changes to what empirical investigation has shown. Most surprising is the way that Newton’s studies of gravity, at first dismissed by Leibniz as pure supernaturalism, forced the abandonment of all but one of the original tenets of the early scientists’ version of MN. But perhaps the most thought-provoking conclusion, which Bartlett documents, is that these changes amount in essence to defining “natural” as whatever happens to have come under the umbrella of science at any given time. This circularity is clearly not a very firm foundation.
To me, though, the more challenging talk was that of Jim LeMaster, of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on the historical foundation of MN in the writings of Francis Bacon, with reference to David Hume’s later writing on analogies. His talk (with some technical gremlins!) is here, and I recommend it.
I really want to use that talk as a launching point for some further thoughts specifically related to Christians involved in science (including, of course, Theistic Evolutionists). What emerges from the presentation is that, like nearly everything else in the practice of science, methodological naturalism actually has its roots deeply (and somewhat contingently) rooted in Christian religion. This all agrees with what I have learned elsewhere about the development of modern science.
Bacon’s program for science took as one of its theological axioms a rather absolutist form of the scholastic philosophical belief that we can know nothing about God-in-himself; about his purposes or his reasons. God is so utterly different from humans that speculating or reasoning about his ways is utterly invalid.
It was for this express reason that Bacon excluded the study of final causes and formal causes completely from the new science: they can, he was sure, yield only reasons that seem plausible to the human mind – they can tell us nothing about God’s reality.
That is not, however, the entirety of the matter. Aristotle (the biggest influence on mediaeval science) had viewed final causation not in theological terms, but in terms of the teleology inherent in all nature: not only the goal-orientated behaviour of living things, but the inherent tendencies of stones to fall, salt to dissolve in water and so on. Scholastics like Aquinas had considered such teleology in nature as the result of God-given secondary powers. But to Bacon and his followers, this was to derogate from the sovereignty of God. They preferred a cosmos of purely passive atomistic particles acted on each other according to God-given universal laws.
Once more, for this purely religious reason, “inherent teleology” was banned from science as well as the “external teleology” of divine final causes (and also formal causes). What Bacon had left was (as I suppose we all know – at least if we’ve been around The Hump for a while) was material, efficient causes. These alone could be reliably observed and described – and used to make predictions. These alone constituted science.
LeMaster considers that Bacon’s thought was, in fact, deeply conflicted in its attempt to match his theology to practical science (even though it was to exclude the theological from science that he did his work). I’ve mentioned more than a few times how, in fact, final and formal causes have never, and can never, be excluded from science in practice. Any classification, or any nested hierarchy, in biology must deal in formal causes. Any talk of function is talk of final causation.
It will also appear from the actual reasons for his excluding internal teleology that Bacon was imposing a theological belief (that God gives no actual teleological powers to nature) quite arbitrarily regarding empirical mattersI it merely prejudged the issue. Internal teleology, though still rather unrespectable now, has had to be smuggled back into science under the name “teleonomy” because it is blatantly obvious – if nowhere else, then undeniably in our own experience as human agents. Yet it’s still a taboo that hinders science by forcing it to account for final causation by efficient material causation, a quite artificial bit of mental gymnastics which is usually, because practically impossible, avoided.
This is so despite a century of quantum science, in which many of the most prominent researchers have concluded that mind is a properly basic constituent of reality (aka “nature”), even as quantum science has fatally undermined the reality of matter itself as more than a human interpretation of a far deeper reality (see here, but also below).
Meanwhile, quantum theory also points out a flaw in Bacon’s original assumptions, the assumptions on which methodological naturalism is considered the basis of science. For if Bacon excluded final and formal causation on the grounds that it is impossible to know the mind of God, then he ought also to have excluded efficient and material causation on the same grounds, at least to the extent that he was suggesting they describe reality. For even if God has created true secondary efficient causes (and their effects), there is no logical reason to suppose that those he builds into nature are those that we think we can can read out of it.
It was David Hume who first cast doubt on the very validity of cause and effect in the physical world, and it has remained philosophically problematic since. After all, just as Alvin Plantinga (and others) have shown that human reasoning, if a product of evolution, has no intrinsic likelihood of finding truth, rather than merely being useful for survival, so our allocation of causes and effects is equally unlikely to be true, rather than merely useful. That is a critique of metaphysical materialism. But in Bacon’s view, human reasoning is no more likely to match God’s way of acting even on theological grounds.
And as I have already pointed out, the intuitive reality of material causes (the “mechanical philosophy” that Bacon espoused) has been revealed as very subjective and anthropocentric: things like the wave-particle duality, quantum entanglement, and so on show that our world of homely “particles” or “waves” or “fields” is only a human model, even (and especially) when it is presented in the abstracted form of mathematics.
So in effect, by allowing efficient and material causes to govern science, Bacon was turning science from a quest for the reality of nature to a purely functional quest for what would work for human endeavour. If it is actually true that we cannot know God’s mind in final and formal causes – and the strictures of methodological naturalism are, as I have shown, based on that assumption – then neither can we know it in efficient and material causes.
We can only know how they appear to us from our creaturely viewpoint. On Bacon’s foundational assumptions, all science can be no more than a search for utilitarian explanations that “save the appearances”, and can no more trust that it has discovered the underlying truth of nature than the mediaevals who believed that the pelican was created to teach us about Christ.
This, I think, is unwelcome news to Christian scientists, for most of whom the scientific quest is about truth as well as utility. Indeed, is not the whole Evolutionary Creation thing about the truths of science and the truths of faith? If we take Bacon’s assumptions about the unknowability of God seriously, then perhaps the whole chain of cause and effect we perceive in any of the biological sciences is just a subjective perception, with nothing that tells us about the way God actually works in the world, and therefore nothing to contribute to theology whether for good, evil or near-neutrality.
But presumably, while we accept methodological naturalism, we are indeed at least tacitly accepting Bacon’s assumptions. In fact, as I was mulling over this post this weekend, a commenter at BioLogos on divine action, Jay Johnson, wrote :
Our confusion … may be because we have zero understanding of divine action and power.
Indeed, one common criticism of ID is that “we cannot know the mind of the Designer.” My argument is that there is actually no better reason to think we understand such divine action and power (abstracted to the category called “natural”) in the efficient and material causes of science than in anything else, but that for some reason Bacon illegitimately assumed there was, as have natural scientists ever since. But the most science can claim, on this basis, is that it can fit humanly reasonable causes to humanly observed phenomena and draw conclusions that work for humans. And that, logically speaking, is not in any way superior to what mediaeval science did with final and formal causes, in terms of truth-value.
But there is, I think, a let out clause to this rather limiting view of science as an approach to real truth. And that also, like the basis of methodological materialism, lies in the theological realm – in the doctrine of revelation. For Bacon’s overly pessimistic view of the hiddenness of God failed to take into account that, whilst it is almost certainly true that God “as he is in himself” is inaccessible to human investigation, yet there is a rich teaching on God’s own willingness to let himself be known by mankind, created as we were “in God’s image”.
This begins with the natural affinity we have, by that “imageness” (whether conceived ontologically or, as in Richard Middleton’s interpretation, missionally) with the Logos of God as our Creator in the very special sense that makes Christ’s Father our own Father. LeMaster’s talk focuses eventually on the valid role of analogy (in his suggestions for an improved methodology for science), but Aquinas also taught that, though “God in himself” may be described only apophatically, yet true things may be said about him analogically, so long as God himself is the one providing the analogy.
In this way, the deep mysteries of the quantum universe may be inaccessible to us – but the world of our ordinary perception is not just a blind, survival-friendly product of evolution, but an analogy authorised in our very creation: God made us to perceive the world this way, and he is a God who loves to reveal truth. Likewise, whilst there is no logical necessity for our power of reason to have any correlation with God’s divine wisdom, the God who reveals himself to his creatures may be expected to match our understanding sufficiently closely to his, analogically, that the investigations of science do tell us truth about the world he made for us, which he intended us to rule on his behalf.
And so this further theological consideration retrieves science for the kind of worship-based investigation of Newton or Copernicus – it truly can think God’s thoughts after him. But this is only achieved by abandoning the basis on which Bacon excluded formal and final causation from science, because that basis would properly exclude efficient and material causation too. Consequently there is at least as good a basis for considering that God has given some true “creational” knowledge of teleology and form to human beings as there is to believe that he has revealed true efficient causes and effect to our reason.
We believe that science reveals truth either through a baseless act of faith in human powers, or as a theological conclusion from God’s revealed character as self-revealer. We conclude from Christian doctrine that our intuitive perception that cause and effect are true is God-given, and therefore reliable.
But if so, we have no basis on which to exclude the equally intuitive inference of wise final causation, and of the validity of universals like form, because they are based on exactly the same natural and theological foundations. For Christians to maintain the present model of methodological materialism is, therefore, quite arbitrary, being based on an outdated theology inadequately applied by Francis Bacon and his successors.
Even more significant, note that both methodological naturalism and any model that might replace it have unavoidably theological foundations. God can scarcely be accused of filling gaps in science when he has filled science itself ever since it became science!