A coherent scientific naturalism

I recently discussed with Chris Falter at BioLogos the vagueness of the term “natural causes” used in the science/faith arena, drawing overtly on C S Lewis’s work on the word “nature”, implicitly on Jonathan Bartlett’s discussion of the protean nature of methodological naturalism over the centuries, and more generally on the thoughts we’ve been tossing around here forever.

Chris asked me to define nature in a way that scientists of all persuasions could use profitably, and it proved quite easy to do, or to put it another way, methodological naturalism can be liberated from the bias towards metaphysical naturalism completely if one is more careful to define “nature” adequately. Since I think the work is useful, and knowing it will disappear under unrelated comments at BioLogos (and completely from there, in a few months) I reproduce the whole thing here.

Chris: Perhaps you would like to give a definition of “natural” that would provide a sense of mission and purpose for the scientists among us, both Christian and atheist. Give it a hefty whack!

Jon: Chris, it’s a bit unfair to ask me to define “natural” for you, and for science, since I reject the natural-supernatural division as intellectually incoherent, or like C S Lewis as a purely emotional distinction which, in my view, has no place in a rigorous pursuit like science. Nevertheless, there’s something that draws the boundaries round science, so if we insist on the term “natural”, how can we define it?

I’d have to go with Bishop Butler, I think, who wrote:

“The only distinct meaning of the word ‘natural’ is stated, fixed or settled; since what is natural as much requires and presupposes an intelligent mind to render it so, i.e., to effect it continually or at stated times, as what is supernatural or miraculous does to effect it for once.”

So my definition of natural would be couched in some terms like “lawlike patterns in the world”. Thus, as pithily as I can:

Nature is that in the world which is regular or repeatable. This is the proper study of science.

I’ll proceed to justify that, in the light of Joshua Swamidass’s careful work on the epistemological limitations of science, to try and make it useful.

The pursuit of science has, I think, two aspects. The first is the organised observation of phenomena and the collection of data. The second, more important part is the recognition of “stated, fixed or settled patterns” in those phenomena and the building of models and theories upon them.

These patterns include both those governing individual events, such as Newton’s laws, and far more commonly statistical patterns of events that, individually, are unknowable for practical reasons (such as the chaotic interactions of every molecule in a gas or the circumstances of individual genetic mutations) or for theoretical reasons (the physical indeterminacy of individual quantum events, according to Bell’s theorem). These patterns constitute the only field in which science proper has a role, but it’s a big role, and universally acceptable.

For a start, it has the benefit of applying to both natural and human sciences. To the extent that individual people’s activities exhibit general patterns, one can make statistical predictions, whilst recognising that perhaps only unknowable individual choices make up those patterns. It could even cover, say, a statistical study of miracle claims without necessarily negating their miraculous nature, so that one could do legitimate science on what kind of diseases are commonly, or rarely, presented as cured. The sole criterion is repeatable, lawlike patterns.

Secondly, all shades of theological opinion can subscribe to it, because the recognition of patterns makes no metaphysical claims about causation. To the metaphysical naturalist, the deduced laws are primary; to the deist they are set in place by God; the theist may openly hold to divine concurrence, and even the occasionalist who believes laws are just God’s habits of action may freely use the same concept, because the patterns are the subject matter, not metaphysical inferences beyond that.

But all sides will need to understand that, “beyond patterns” means, in fact, beyond nature as we have defined it and so beyond (current) science. To make a claim for “natural causes” for individual mutations, simply because there is a loose statistical pattern (as per Steve [Matheson]’s useful post, which was essentially what I meant by mine!) is not a scientific claim, although digging down and discovering repeatable causes extends the science, of course.

But even then, to the extent that one still has to manipulate the data statistically, even such real causes cannot be assumed to be the sole ones, for you cannot keep watch to see if angels, or some more prosaic cause, is responsible for some of them.

And so the word “natural” is legitimately applied only to the realm of patterns and laws. Least of all can one invoke randomness – which only means “ignorance of causation” – as a “natural cause”. It is neither a true efficient cause anyway, nor a lawlike pattern (unlike the macro-patterns that may emerge from multiple events of such unknown causes).

What this all means is that the term “methodological naturalism” will remain valid, but will have nothing whatsoever to do with the intellectually untenable “natural/supernatural” divide, but instead refers to the “natural/unrepeatable” divide. The more humbling side is that science will lose its pretence to be able to explain the whole of reality, but only by a realistic acknowledgement of its methodological limitations.

This will divide science sharply from “metaphysical naturalism”, which is inextricably wedded to the “natural/supernatural” divide and claims that only “the natural” exists – clearly they could live neither with the idea that only the repeatable exists, or that the world is bigger than their system. Metaphysical naturalism may go and define itself, if it can, with more or less incoherence.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to A coherent scientific naturalism

  1. Merv Bitikofer says:

    I’m finally catching up over here on the Hump, Jon — looks like I’ve been missing out. My time probably would have been better spent here than listening to atheists at other locales. So maybe I’ll have see if its too late to go back and weigh on on your excellent “moral imperialism” essay — especially since I feel perhaps a little bit targeted with some of my own sweeping generalizations I expressed there. But not before commenting here.

    This re-thinking (if I may credit you with that … and by extension others to whom you give credit) of M.N. really resonates with me. And I’ve always seen it as a matter of scale. Most humans all through history might have considered comets (much less earth-colliding asteroids) to be one-off events — portents of doom in the case of comets. It took a long view (and a relatively short-period comet like Halley) for someone to notice that it actually is a repeatable observation! On the scale of human life-times, large asteroids hitting the earth are unknown and would popularly be considered singular events. Yet if we could take a geologically-scaled view, we have good reason to believe that those too are repeatable events. We just don’t exist on a long enough scale to personally observe that first-hand. Yet we find evidence of it by observing craters on earth, moon, and other bodies. So we aren’t really in a position to declare dogmatically what is repeatable or not. Maybe something is so unlikely that it only occurs once over the whole lifetime of the universe. Yet if we were there to observe it, we may not find any particular reason to think it unnatural but for its rarity. So we can at least grasp a principle of repeatability and conceptually apply it as a convenient delimiter of science. We do teach, after all, that repeatability is one of the key ingredients of the scientific method. Thanks for the thoughts.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks Merv

      Periodic comets are a good example of the idea I have of statistical laws emerging from the phenomena as they are better understood.

      The particular issue you raise has to do with systems operating near chaos: Halley’s comet is only as predictable (from Newton’s laws) as its non-interaction with other bodies, for the three-body problem is still insoluble. Was it dim in 1986 because it was pulled apart by some other unknown comet out on the periphery? If it had disappeared altogether, it would have been both unexpected and unexplained.

      On my “scheme” we could not, by definition, invoke “natural causes” – Halley’s comet would have done something UNnatural, though of course we might well speculate that some other innocently orbiting body was to blame, rather than the activity of angels. But we would not be entitled to say “it disappeared by natural causes” unless and until we found the responsible object in the right place. A lot of the time that will be impossible – if only because it might no longer be in the right place, and without previous data we’d have no idea if it was in a “natural” (ie repeatable) orbit before.

      In other words, a phenomenon’s naturalness just is its observed repeatability.

  2. swamidass says:

    I think that is an interesting proposal, but I am not sure it works. Science definitely studies things that are not regular or repeatable. And many of these things I think it studies rightly. For example, it can study the recent Tsunami and its effects on wildlife, even though this is neither regular nor repeatable.

    How about this for a better definition, more theologically grounded. Nature is that which God has created, but not God Himself. Science studies the domains of nature/creation that are accessible by some systematic human means (i.e. they are tractable) and includes law-like behavior to discover (on at least the level in at which science studies). In this sense, part of what makes “nature” so hard to define is that it can only be properly defined in relation to God. Nature is not well defined concept, but what we really mean by it is “not the Creator”.

    I think in this context we see the real deficiency of methodological naturalism (MN). MN might be an attempt to formalize an inherently theological concept (“in science we study creation exclusively, without interrogating the Creator”) in the language of naturalism. The theological concept has great merit and is coherent. The relabeled, redefined, appropriated MN is much more difficult to fix.

    I assert that recovering the theological definition of MN (as I have sketched here) clarifies greatly the limits of science and the “nature of nature”.

    What do the theologically minded people think?

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for your comments Joshua, and for following seriously my similar arguments over at BioLogos.

      Although I didn’t stress it in the OP (since the challenge was to define “nature” for science rather than science itself) I did seek to cover observation of whatever is observable as the “data collecting” aspect of science. That was much more prominent in the past, perhaps, when the mere collecting of thousands of species was of equal importance to trying to classify them (I think of Banks v Linnaeus, or even of Babylonian astronomers just recording the states of the sky for the omen-mongers to classify).

      But wouldn’t you agree that underlying that observation process is always the desire to theorise and detect order? The reasons for investigating tsunami effects would be to understand their cause, predict the dangers for the future, maybe peripherally to understand historical tsunamis that have left traces etc. After all, a kid counting how many cars pass his house each minute (as I recorded in graph form at maybe 8 years old!) is only doing science when he notes the rush-hour or the correlation with the traffic signals down the road (as I didn’t!).

      If I were to add this raw observation to my suggestion about scientific methodology, using my definition of “nature”, it would be along the lines that science’s role is seeking to bring more and more of creation into nature, ie into the regular and repeatable.

      Your definition is fine on one understanding of nature, but I don’t think it fully deals with the limitations science actually puts on itself. Excluding “the interrogation of God” is certainly legitimate, but C S Lewis points out that ghosts (or angels, or spirits) are all created beings which, presumably, have their own “natures”, but they are usually regarded as “supernatural” and off-limits to science, whether or not they exist. Yet they are not God, or necessarily even his agents. In my definition I would exclude them only insofar as they are voluntary agents and therefore unpredictable, or immaterial and therefore undetectable (but what about dark matter??). But if an angel (as in John’s gospel, later mss) regularly stirred the pool of Bethesda, one could do science on it under my model by observing the pattern of disturbances, cures, etc.

      Then again, defining nature simply as not-God renders man in his entirety “natural”, which not only assumes his spirit to be entirely tractable to science (see the recent piece on Brian Cox here), but also gives no good reason to exclude ethics, art, philosophy and so on from being part of science and then, perhaps, leads to their being denied because they can’t be measured like a tsunami. And so logically you get eliminative materialism’s denial of the reality of human thought deduced by the process of human thought – in other words, in order to work coherently science has to place the pursuit of science itself (induction, deduction, etc) outside nature. Science can’t study science.

      In addition, can one really find agreement on the definition of science on the basis of God, and satisfy those who deny there is a God?

      As you say yourself, this shows how difficult it is to define MN – which can’t be satisfactory for science, which entails precise watertight definitions. Lewis (as I said) considers the natural-supernatural divide to be merely emotional, and so (I deduce) useless for scientific definitions. Your “natural-God” divide is what early modern science worked on, providential acts being believed, but not brought into science, except that Bacon had hopes that extensive study of even these would reveal scientific patterns: my definition of nature could agree with that in principle, even if I would not expect much from such a research program, given God’s inscrutability.

      I think we share the desire to circumscribe science clearly – I’ve very much been following your own writing about science as a delineated pursuit in these thoughts, in the hope of arriving at an agreed area of “science” and a larger residuum of “true, but not-science” making up the rest of reality.

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