Here’s a thought experiment about how the socially-constituted rules of scientific methodology can easily be misconstrued as the real constraints of the world.
A scientist looks at the evidence for the Resurrection of Christ, is convinced it happened, and publishes a naturalistic explanation for it. This needn’t be good or original – none of the natural explanations are. Perhaps this one boils down in the Summary to “We hypothesize that on rare occasions, spontaneous re-vivification of organisms occurs through unusual environmental conditions.”
It’s complete crap, of course, but there is now, in the literature, a natural scientific explanation for the Resurrection of Christ. This is not an encroachment on religion because, in the investigator’s worldview, religion is simply false, but yet he considers the phenomenon is real on the evidence – ergo, there must be a scientific explanation. But because, in point of fact, Jesus Christ rose by the mighty creative power of God entirely contrary to nature, there can be no better scientific explanation in the wings waiting to replace his false theory, and so it stands as valid by default.
For some theologian – or even an outraged Christian scientific peer – to attempt a refutation in Nature will be – or ought to be, on the principle of methodological naturalism – forbidden. But this is not only because supernatural explanations are said not to be permissible in science, but because to refute a faulty theory without replacing it with a better one is also generally inadmissible, according to philsophers of science like Karl Popper. Lavoisier cannot pour scorn on the weaknesses of the phlogiston theory unless and until he discovers oxygen. So there is a Catch 22 situation: to refute the inadequate naturalistic theory of the resurrection in the literature, the critic has to propose a better naturalistic theory. And since he can’t, not beliving the Resurrection to be natural, the inadequate theory remains the last word in the literature.
The opponent might be told that since he is not doing science, but “theology informed by science,” and is not presenting an alternative naturalistic theory, he should try the philosophy journals if he wants to make his point. But few people read philosophy journals compared to New Scientist, and in any case, many scientists, like many theologians, despise philosophy as something that takes place in armchairs rather than the real world. They read even fewer philosophical jornals.
I suppose some other skeptic might attempt to refute the original paper by proposing instead a version of the swoon theory, and then there would be two perfectly good natural explanations in the literature, to be cited by atheist commenters on BioLogos or Peaceful Science as evidence that science has no problem with explaining the Resurrection without involving God. And there would certainly be no chance of anyone quoting a counter-citation refuting natural causes, because no such article would pass peer-review. And of course, in this case (because the Resurrection in truth lies outside science) science itself would never refute the two theories, except by generating as many other vaguely plausible, but rubbish, theories as imaginative pseudo-scientists could get published – which may, one hopes, not be many.
In fact, supposing that the first paper were found to be cited 100 times in the literature, and the second only four, it would be true to say that the consensus view of science was that Jesus returned to life by spontaneous natural re-vivification. Science may not have the right to make religious claims, but its authority to make natural claims is undisputed, and this explanation, being the best natural claim science had to offer, would be true by default… unless you know of any branch of science that admits that even its best theories in some area are, candidly, useless.
As a free agent you wouldn’t have to believe the science, of course – but that would be a rather negative and anti-intellectual response in this sad age of science-denialists, would it not? You’d put yourself in there with the climate denialists and flat-earthers, an especially risky move if you happened to work in the sciences. And of course, you’re not even qualified in the field of spontaneous re-vivification research, whereas those who publish the articles got their PhDs by studying it, under the supervision of the guy who first published. We can see that the game’s outcome would be inevitable.
Yet we all know the game would have been rigged.