Science in Christian Perspective



Conference on Naturalism, Theism, and the Scientific Enterprise

Prof. Robert C. Koons
Guest Editor
Department of Philosophy
University of Texas at Austin


From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 49 (September 1997): 141.

The NTSE Conference at the University of Texas (February 2023, 1997) brought together 120 scientists, scholars, and students from North America and Europe to discuss the relationship between methodological naturalism, theistic hypotheses and explanations, and the practice of science. The keynote speakers included Phillip Johnson (University of California-Berkeley), Alvin Plantinga (University of Notre Dame), Michael Ruse (University of Guelph), and Frederick Grinnell (Utah Southwestern Medical Center). Thirty-nine papers were read by specialists in the philosophy of science, history, geology, biology, physics, computer science, rhetoric, theology, and the social sciences. The discussions and questions took place at a very high level and were characterized throughout by friendliness and mutual respect. Real progress was made, with all sides enriched by the encounter, and a convergence of views developed on some centrally important issues. For example, you would find almost universal agreement among philosophers that Cartesian foundationalism and logical positivism are failed projects, and you would find substantial agreement on how and why they failed. Similarly, the philosophers, scientists, and scholars who attended made substantial progress together on the very important question: Is methodological naturalism an essential part of science? During the conference, we moved together toward several shared conclusions:

1.We cannot make a priori pronouncements about what kind of theory or what kind of explanation can properly be made in the course of scientific inquiry. In principle, there is nothing to exclude reference to superhuman, or even extra-cosmic, intelligence.

2. Good science consists in working within research programs that are progressive in the following senses: (a) they generate empirically testable, novel predictions; (b) they generate explanations of a wide range of phenomena on the basis of a simple, spare system of postulated entities and relationships; (c) they deal with anomalies and predictive failures without resorting to ad hoc repairs or epicycles. The inspiration for a scientific research program can come from anywhere, including religious conviction, but the evaluation of an existing program must be rigorously empirical.

3. If theistic science or intelligent design theory is to become a progressive research program, it must do more than poke holes in the evidence for Darwinism: it must acquire auxiliary hypotheses about the intentions and preferences of the designer from which we can generate specific, testable predictions and informative explanations.

4. We should not expect intelligent design theory to offer much, if anything, in the way of support to Christian theology, which, anyway, does not stand in need of any such support. Instead, if we are to pursue theistic research programs, it must be for the sake of doing science and doing it well, not for the sake of religion. The cosmic designer investigated in science may be identified, on philosophical or theological grounds, with the God of Scriptures, but science itself cannot make this identification.

These four theses became so widely shared at the end of the conference that I think we could call them the Canonical View of the NTSE conference. This convergence was especially remarkable considering the wide diversity of views with which we began, including nonbelievers and adherents of all the major branches of Christendom, and both people sympathetic to and initially quite hostile toward the project of theistic science and to intelligent design theory. I should mention at least one other point upon which we reached a firm consensus: that the time has come to conduct the debate on methodological naturalism and theistic science on the merits (indeed, on the scientific merits) of the case, and we should no longer tolerate ad hominen attacks, with attendant name-calling, bullying, and intimidation ("He's just a lawyer...he doesn't understand how science works... ," etc.). The project of launching theistic paradigms in science is now much larger than a one-man crusade and would go forward even if, per impossible, it were possible to silence or discredit Phillip Johnson. A growing number of young scientists, scholars, and philosophers of science are staking their careers on the prospects of an emerging design paradigm, including Dembski at Notre Dame, Nelson at Chicago, Meyer at Whitworth, and Corey at the Union Institute.

Most participants would also agree that the emerging design paradigm needs to be given adequate time to mature and develop before a definitive verdict can be rendered. The core idea of intelligent design must be supplemented with auxiliary hypotheses and generalizations about the structure of the design and about at what points the design makes contact with the natural world. We are at a stage analogous to Copernican astronomy before the discovery of Kepler's laws (to say nothing of Newton's).