Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Methodological vs. Metaphysical Naturalism

Recently there was this post on The Panda’s Thumb (the group evolution blog) introducing a new contributor, Henry Neufeld, whose professional field is biblical scholarship. He is both a theist as well as a defender of evolution. This led to some discussion on the blog about the compatibility of these stances. Also on the relationship between the creationism/evolution divide and the theism/atheism divide see this blog entry from Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

I listened to a talk by philosopher Paul Draper awhile back on the topic of “God, Science and Naturalism”. Part of his talk highlighted a distinction between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism. Now, not everyone agrees on the definitions of these terms, so let me give the impression I got from Prof. Draper. Accepting methodological naturalism means that one accepts that in our collective efforts we should look exclusively for natural explanations for phenomena when investigating the world. One accepts this stance based on the established pattern of the success of this approach, but not because of a pre-commitment to a belief regarding the existence or non-existence of supernatural entities. Some theists are comfortable with this stance. Others feel their personal beliefs are threatened by this stance and advocate a search for signs of God’s interventions when examining the world (unfortunately some of them try to subvert the public education system to try to include this approach). Subscribing to metaphysical naturalism goes the extra step in explicitly adopting a philosophical worldview which rules out the possibility of supernatural intervention. A traditional theist could not take this step and retain a belief in a deity which is transcendent, omnipotent, supremely good, etc.

I think this distinction is helpful in parsing these kinds of discussions. So, if someone supports and defends evolution and the other products of science, but is also a traditional theist, I would think you could assume they support methodological naturalism, but do not subscribe to metaphysical naturalism.
On the other hand, when I’ve said I subscribe to naturalism, I did mean metaphysical naturalism. I’m therefore someone willing to take the step from the success of the methodology to a claim about the truth about the world. Finally, I have explained why such a naturalistic worldview can be consistent with some (admittedly less traditional) forms of theism (see this post).


anonymous said...

I think humans have wild imaginations. And we try our best to find evidence supporting those crazy little ideas we have, calling it truth, poetizing our existence. Wars have been fought for those beliefs, but in the end we know nothing.

Steve said...

I agree it can be dangerous when people think they know more than they do. But I think our participation in the natural world does give us the chance to gain real knowledge about it.