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Methodological Naturalism in the Sciences

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Creationists have long argued that evolutionary science is committed to a dogmatic metaphysics of naturalism and materialism, which is based on faith or ideology rather than evidence. The standard response to this has been to insist that science is
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           1 3 International Journal for Philosophyof Religion  ISSN 0020-7047 Int J Philos ReligDOI 10.1007/s11153-019-09728-9  Methodological naturalism in the sciences Sandy C. Boucher           1 3 Your article is protected by copyright andall rights are held exclusively by SpringerNature B.V.. This e-offprint is for personaluse only and shall not be self-archivedin electronic repositories. If you wish toself-archive your article, please use theaccepted manuscript version for posting onyour own website. You may further depositthe accepted manuscript version in anyrepository, provided it is only made publiclyavailable 12 months after official publicationor later and provided acknowledgement isgiven to the srcinal source of publicationand a link is inserted to the published articleon Springer's website. The link must beaccompanied by the following text: "The finalpublication is available at link.springer.com”.  Vol.:(0123456789)International Journal for Philosophy of Religionhttps://doi.org/10.1007/s11153-019-09728-9  1 3 ARTICLE Methodological naturalism in the sciences Sandy C. Boucher 1   Received: 23 July 2019 / Accepted: 12 September 2019 © Springer Nature B.V. 2019 Abstract Creationists have long argued that evolutionary science is committed to a dogmatic metaphysics of naturalism and materialism, which is based on faith or ideology rather than evidence. The standard response to this has been to insist that science is not committed to any such metaphysical doctrine, but only to a methodological version of naturalism, according to which science may only appeal to natural enti-ties and processes. But this whole debate presupposes that there is a clear distinction between the natural and the supernatural, and thus that naturalism is a meaningful doctrine. I argue that this assumption is false. The concepts of the natural and the supernatural are in fact hopelessly obscure, such that the claim that science is com-mitted to methodological naturalism cannot be made good. This is no victory for anti-naturalists however; explicitly supernaturalist theories, such as Creationism, can be ruled out of scientific consideration as a priori incoherent, given that they presup-pose for their intelligibility that there is a meaningful natural-supernatural distinc-tion. This is not the case for standard scientific theories however, as they are not explicitly naturalistic theories; they do not postulate natural or physical entities or processes as such. Keywords  Naturalism · Physicalism · Evolution · Creationism · Science · Demarcation Introduction Creationists have long argued that evolutionary science is committed to a dog-matic metaphysics of naturalism and materialism, which is based on faith or ideol-ogy rather than evidence, and which biases their science. The standard response to this (including, it is worth adding, from some theists, e.g. McDonald and Tro 2009) has been to insist that science is not committed to any such metaphysical doctrine *  Sandy C. Boucher aboucher@une.edu.au 1  School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351, Australia   International Journal for Philosophy of Religion  1 3 (ontological naturalism (ON)), but only to a methodological version of natural-ism (MN), according to which science may only appeal to natural entities and pro-cesses. 1  MN is neutral on the truth of ON: according to MN, supernatural entities may exist, and supernatural claims and theories may be true; but science is or should be naturalistic: it does not/ought not to appeal to the supernatural in any form. Also, according to MN, standard scientific theories are neutral—that is, silent—on the truth of ON. Darwin’s theory of evolution, for instance, does not rule out (or rule in) the existence of God (Sober 2011). One may be a theist, yet accept MN as a basic methodological principle of science.There are broadly speaking two versions of MN, which Boudry et al. (2010) call ‘intrinsic methodological naturalism’ (IMN) and ‘pragmatic methodological natu-ralism’ (PMN). According to IMN, science by its very nature excludes supernatu-ral explanations. Science, qua  science, necessarily posits only natural entities, pro-cesses, and agency. Science cannot postulate the supernatural without ceasing to be science. According to the increasingly popular PMN on the other hand, there is no reason in principle why science may not appeal to the supernatural. To the extent that MN is a guiding principle for science today, it is merely because of the poor track record of supernaturalist theories and explanations. Again and again natural-istic theories have proven superior to supernatural theories on standard scientific grounds; we are thus entitled to conclude on inductive grounds that supernatural theories are a poor empirical/explanatory bet, and contemporary science ought to eschew appeal to the supernatural. But this is provisional and potentially open to revision: in principle, supernatural theories could become a legitimate part of sci-ence (as they arguably have been in the past), if the evidence in their favour was suf-ficiently convincing. 2  There is nothing inherently unscientific about supernaturalist theories as such (Draper 2007; Dawes 2011; Smith 2017; Smith and Dawes 2018; Fales 2013; Boudry et al. 2010; Koperski 2008; McDonald and Tro 2009). On the opposing side, we have opponents of MN in all its forms, such as Plant-inga (e.g. 1997), and sundry creationists, who argue that science today can and ought to include appeal to the supernatural. 3 1  While this is the standard response, some (e.g. Forrest 2000; see Dilley 2010) argue there is a tighter connection between ON and MN, in that the success of naturalistic science—science done in accordance with MN—strongly supports the truth of ON. So they do not deny the Creationists’ charge of a commit-ment to or belief in ON, but deny that it is based on faith or ideology: it is based, rather, on the past suc-cess of naturalistic inquiry. 2  What I am calling PMN is not always presented as a version of MN; Koperski (2008), for instance, defends the view that I am calling PMN, but clearly does not think of it as a version of MN, essentially identifying MN with IMN. Indeed ‘MN’ is often used to mean ‘IMN’: the idea that, as PMN allows, supernaturalist theories can in principle be a legitimate part of science, would be thought by many to be a denial  of MN, not a version of it. This is arguably just a terminological issue however. 3  It should be noted that one can reject MN, and hold that science today can and should be considering and testing (at least some) supernaturalist hypotheses, without being committed to the truth of the latter the way that Plantinga and the creationists are: one could even hold this view while endorsing ON, since from the fact that God and other supernatural entities do not exist, it only follows that theories that appeal to such entities cannot be true , it doesn’t follow that they cannot or should not be considered and tested within contemporary science; see Dilley (2010).   1 3 International Journal for Philosophy of Religion This whole debate presupposes however that there is a clear distinction between the natural and the supernatural, and thus that naturalism—whether ON or MN—is a meaningful doctrine. I will argue that this assumption is false. The concepts of the natural and the supernatural are in fact hopelessly obscure, such that the claim that science is committed to methodological naturalism cannot be made good. This is no victory for anti-naturalists however; explicitly supernaturalist theories, such as Creationism, can be ruled out of scientific consideration as a priori incoherent, given that they presuppose for their intelligibility that there is a meaningful natural-super-natural distinction. This is not the case for standard scientific theories however, as they are not explicitly naturalistic theories; they do not postulate natural or physical entities or processes as such.In the following section I shall argue that there is no satisfactory way of drawing the natural-supernatural distinction. Obviously in a paper of this length I can only hope to present an initially plausible case in defence of this large claim. The case is however, surprisingly convincing, in my judgment. The remainder of the paper explores the important implications of this claim for the debate about methodologi-cal naturalism. 4 Naturalism, physicalism and Hempel’s dilemma One looks in vain in the literature for satisfactory definitions of the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’, such that MN can be given content. For the most part no definitions are offered; it is just assumed that we have an intuitive grasp of the distinction. (No definitions of the natural are offered in the papers on MN by Koperski (2008), Smith (2017), Smith and Dawes (2018), Dawes (2011), Boudry et al. (2010), Plantinga (1997), Schick (2000), and McDonald and Tro (2009). Fales (2013), Boudry et al. (2010) and Smith (2017) offer definitions of the supernatural; I criticise their defini- tions below). Sometimes they are defined, unhelpfully, in terms of one another: the natural is everything that is not supernatural and the supernatural is whatever is not natural (or a variant of this, ‘things like gods and ghosts and spirits are paradigmati-cally supernatural, and natural entities are things that are not like that  ’ 5 ). Can we break into this circle? A slightly more helpful but still inadequate definition of the natural that is sometimes given, or hinted at, is that to be natural is to be potentially scientifically investigable/explainable. Naturalism would then be the view that eve-rything that exists is able to be investigated and explained by science. This concep-tion of the natural is presumably what underlies the view that if the ‘supernatural’ turned out to be scientifically legitimate, it would by definition be natural, not super-natural (Forrest 2000; Pennock 2001; Quine 1995; see Boudry et al. 2010, 241 for discussion). The idea of scientific theories of the supernatural would be a contradic-tion in terms. 4  Thank you to an anonymous referee for suggesting I frame my project in this way. 5  I discuss this ‘paradigm case’ approach to distinguishing the natural and supernatural below.
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