Mar 02

A Tale of Two Naturalisms

Neil deGrasse Tyson, speaking on the god of the gaps argument, brought up the often quoted survey of religiosity among members of the National Academy of Sciences. The survey showed that only 15% of the Academy members believed in a personal god. Much has been made of this almost complete reversal compared to the general population. But Tyson interestingly remarked, “How come this number isn’t zero? That’s the story!”

This retreat to non-overlapping magisteria by the 15% comes from the distinction between Methodological Naturalism (MN) and Philosophical Naturalism (PN). MN is an assumption in science that we can only gain knowledge of natural causes. PN, on the other hand, is the denial that there are supernatural things unless there is sufficient reason or evidence to think so. It doesn’t make much sense, then, that a scientist, who accepts MN as a guiding assumption that works amazingly well, would put on his or her faith goggles when they take off the lab coat.

Consider the following argument:

1. Methodological Naturalism asserts that we can only detect and know natural causes.

2. If we can only detect and know natural causes, then we have no reason to believe in supernatural causes.

3. If we have no reason to believe in supernatural causes, then it is justifiable to assume Philosophical Naturalism.

4. If you are willing to assume Methodological Naturalism, then you should be willing to assume Philosophical Naturalism.

If you are willing to assume one, then you should be just as willing to assume the other unless contrary evidence is presented. In fact, it seems fairly inconsistent to assume natural causes for everything we study in the world and then still believe in the supernatural. It would seem to be like knowing the wind causes the tree to move and still positing the tree has a spirit anyway. That’s kind of the whole point of the starting MN assumption. Once you know what lightning is, you no longer need a mountain god throwing bolts in anger.

Many who want to save this distinction and hold on to their supernatural beliefs will say that MN does not assert the impossibility of spooky causes. It’s true that PN isn’t a necessary logical entailment of MN. But shouldn’t it lead to that conclusion? Do you really want to hang your hat on a retreat to the possible? This is quite clearly a case of special pleading, which could be seen by simply asking a Bible-believing Christian scientist what he or she thinks of unicorns. MN doesn’t rule them out as impossible, yet they assume unicorns are fictional. Mere possibility is not and should not be enough. Once you accept this, the whole idea of non-overlapping magisteria no longer makes any sense.

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