How Methodological Naturalism Begs the Question of Nature’s Nature and Blocks the Path of Inquiry

Let’s begin by being clear about our terminology. As we are using it here, “naturalism” is a philosophical term and “naturalists” are not those who study nature, but rather those who hold certain tenets about nature. In particular, metaphysical naturalists maintain that there is no such being as God and there is no realm of being that transcends the physical; all that exists are material substances and processes and things that emerge from them. A methodological naturalist may or may not believe that metaphysical naturalism is true, but maintains that for the purposes of science one cannot appeal to transcendent causes, and therefore scientific research must be pursued as if metaphysical naturalism were true. In other words, a methodological naturalist believes that, for the purposes of doing science, the Universe (all of nature) must be treated as a closed system of physical causes and effects.

Needless to say, Christians reject metaphysical naturalism as false; but why, then, would they be seduced into embracing its methodological handmaiden? The only plausible explanation for their acceptance of the unacceptable is that methodological naturalism has been sold as a foundational principle for the practice of science and that, quite appropriately, they believe that science is an important and productive activity in which Christians should be involved. Indeed it is, but – with all due respect to the district judge in Kitzmiller v. Dover whose philosophical naiveté was exploited by the ACLU – this does not mean that methodological naturalism is a foundational principle for the practice of science.

What is foundational to the practice of science is the assumption of uniformity in the causal structure of nature, that is, uniformitarianism. Some think that uniformitarianism is equivalent to methodological naturalism – after all, they assert, if God “intervened” to change the course of nature this deviation would disrupt natural regularity and destroy the possibility of science – but this assertion is mistaken on multiple levels and it’s easy to see that uniformitarianism and methodological naturalism are distinct ideas. Continue reading

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