How to End Science's Border War:
A Conceptual Framework

Harley D. Potter

P.O. Box 23031
Ottawa, ON K2A 4E2

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 51.2 (June 1999): 98-101.

Whether the rational case for intelligent design, based on interpretation of scientific data, should be brought within science's borders or left outside because of a necessity for methodological naturalism has been a topic of vigorous debate in this journal and elsewhere. Border disputes are sometimes settled by establishing buffer zones. Something of that sort is involved in two recent suggestions for dichotomizing science. Alvin Plantinga has argued for a division into Duhemian science and "Augustinian science," enlarging science's outer boundary to take account of "what we know as Christians."1 Keith Abney has advocated recognizing teleological and nonteleological science.2

This communication deals with a third, perhaps more radical, dichotomization. Developed independently some time ago, it is not a reaction to the other two, but it could serve as either a complement or an alternative. It is presented here as part of an overall, basic conceptual framework for critiquing conventional science and arguing for intelligent design. While this framework has a place for those arguments, it does not seek to "promote" intelligent design to scientific status. Rather, it "demotes" portions of science from apparent equality of merit with other science—if they indeed must be closed to intelligent design by methodological naturalism. Its primary purpose is to focus critical attention on special subsets of science that, in a larger intellectual context, give rise to a question scientists have a duty to face: Can my working assumption of naturalism be at least partially false?

Freighted with philosophical implications, this question is one of the most important questions the human intellect can address—even if one's viewpoint is not religious. Therefore, it is argued that effectively censoring its adequate consideration in classroom and public discussion on the pretext of protecting methodological naturalism is intellectually dishonest and anti-intellectual.

In this framework, special areas (mostly, but not necessarily entirely, in biological origins) would become a zone within science called "parascience." These areas raise rational issues, outside science, about the local validity of the basic naturalistic assumption of science and thus about that assumption's universal applicability. So, the exposition of some theories requires an accompanying caveat: identify the issue's existence and adequately acknowledge the case in a larger intellectual context against methodological naturalism's universal applicability, even where parascience practitioners disagree with that case or wish to argue against it.

Three presuppositions influence this approach:

1. Mainstream, conventional scientists will never accept intelligent design or nonnatural causes into science. Neither will they accept, as part of their own task, questioning the complete sufficiency of the principle of methodological naturalism. This is taken as a sociological reality.

 2. Unless the suggested strategy is adopted, most scientists and many educated people will probably continue to use the case against considering intelligent design within science as an excuse for not considering it at all. Also, the general culture may increasingly misperceive naturalism as a finding of science rather than as its working assumption.

3. There is merit in methodological naturalism continuing to provide an independent check on the arguments of those who infer discontinuities or uncrossable barriers to a naturalistic explanation of particular phenomena. That case for the defense may remove particular criticisms of parascience or move its borders. If, however, those who argue for the insufficiency of methodological naturalism are really right, then further naturalistic research must, on balance, strengthen those criticisms—just as it has increasingly made possible their current form.

Science's "Grand Paradox"

Science has developed from the top down, so to speak. Historically, it started with nature's ongoing operations, readily subject to experimentation and repeated observation. Methodological naturalism largely or entirely "works" with this largest part of science's subject matter. It also partly works when one proceeds from the top toward the bottom, i.e., origins. Scientists at various times have pushed back the boundary between ordinary or nonproblematic science and parascience. (By "nonproblematic" one means without problems as to the naturalistic assumption's applicability.) Therefore, parascience exponents have immense confidence in the validity of the assumption that everything that happens or has happened in the creation of the universe is, in principle, explainable in terms of natural causes or ongoing regularities. (See a Christian scientist's articulation of that confidence.3)

But, as indicated, a case has gradually developed in special areas that suggests that this assumption might not be true. Therefore a paradox develops—science's "grand paradox." On the one hand, if methodological naturalism is abandoned, science's search for a better, perhaps adequate, naturalistic explanation of particular phenomena may have difficulty proceeding. If investigation does proceed, then particular challenges might disappear, as they often have (largely in operations science). On the other hand, in some situations, particularly those related to origins, difficulties appear to present not just "gaps" but specific, logical barriers to naturalistic explanation. If an adjunct, extra-scientific, rational consideration of these is refused or strongly discouraged, then these special areas of science easily turn into unconscious, but systematic, intellectual dishonesty.

Premise Criticism

An adjunct rational examination of the larger intellectual issue about the scope of methodological naturalism's viability would be to test science's premise for falseness. This premise, i.e., all things that have happened in the origin and development of the physical universe have occurred in accordance with ongoing natural laws or regularities, is potentially falsifiable in one of two senses: (1) by finding logical and physical difficulties or barriers to naturalistic or fully naturalistic explanations of some past phenomena, demonstrating that naturalistic explanation is impossible; or (2) by establishing cases of vanishingly small probability of any possible naturalistic explanation. In the second context, there is a loose analogy to the rejection of the null hypothesis in statistical inference: one might reject—even if provisionally—the hypothesis of no difference between reality and the universal rule of natural laws, though one could not formally quantify the probability. (In courtroom terms, one is dealing with "the balance of evidence."4) This necessary analysis, outside science, might be called "premise criticism," "premise analysis," or "protasiology" (from the Greek for premise: protasis).

Phillip Johnson has commented on the need to "audit" naturalistic science.5 Ongoing premise criticism would audit parascience. In turn, parascience would audit premise criticism by trying to show that the seeming barriers were merely "gaps" that it has succeeded in filling. Though applied partly outside conventional science, this reciprocal process retains the provisional or tentative character of much of science, where that seems warranted.

The concept of premise criticism parallels, and is partly debtor to, Ruse's view that it can be legitimate to use science to show that no scientific explanation is possible, that some phenomena lie beyond science's ability to describe or explain.6 This is perhaps not quite the same thing as premise criticism, but close to it.

The educated public has some familiarity with the idea of the "limitations of science." There is hope that educational authorities could be persuaded to accept premise criticism and the concept of parascience, providing nothing is inserted into science and no attempt is made to discourage ongoing endeavors to extend naturalistic explanation.

Premise criticism should not be assimilated into science, though scientists could take part. It does not seek and cannot create a new paradigm within which science can begin new investigations. Johnson has made cogent points on the difficulties of scientists auditing science.7 In well-run factories, quality control does not report to production managers.

Why the "Para" in Parascience?

Why the "para" in parascience? Science was originally a subdivision of philosophy, i.e., of the intellectual pursuit of truth. But if there is a substantive basis for doubt in the larger intellectual context about the valid scope of naturalism, this methodological necessity in such special cases can amount to shunning a necessary search for truth. Therefore, while ordinary or nonproblematic science still qualifies as a legitimate child of philosophy, parascience becomes its bastard offspring—unless qualified by an ongoing, extra-scientific evaluation of the validity of science's naturalistic working assumption.

Ordinary science commands great academic and public respect, based on its demonstrated usefulness and relative reliability in the domain of ordinary science. This esteem is unwarrantedly transferred to parascience and exploited without restraint by the naive and the ideologically motivated.

Ultrascience and "Theistic Science"

Positive arguments for "intelligent design" or creation cannot be assimilated into premise criticism, since premise criticism is concerned in a narrow way only with the falsity or tenability of naturalism as such. A protasiological finding against naturalism would, of course, lead many to a third level of consideration. It too may require a name. "Ultrascience" is suggested—"ultra" is Latin for "beyond." This discipline could consider whether there is a case for intelligent design (as, of course, there is). Outside science, like premise criticism, but making judgments using information from science, ultrascience would attempt rational, intellectual judgments.

One can conceive of ultrascience as either this last step, after premise criticism, or as the combination of parascience, premise criticism, and ultrascience. Ultrascience differs from the "theistic science" of some who, after concluding upon an ascription to supernatural causation, apparently would have scientists drop methodological naturalism locally. A criticism of "theistic science," of course, has been that it results only in ascription to a cause or class of causes that cannot be described analytically, whereas such description is the business of science.

In the concepts presented here, science is essentially the attempted description of natural processes, tenably or otherwise when evaluated by premise criticism. It assumes ascription to natural causes as a class and bars itself from questioning that. Premise criticism does that questioning and may reject the ascription. Then ultrascience evaluates possible ascription to intelligent design and may adopt or reject that ascription, but presumably cannot undertake any, or much, description.

In some environments, one might succeed only in attaching premise criticism to the teaching of parascience; in other environments, one might also append ultrascience and the rational case for intelligent design; and in Christian institutions, one might go further to Augustinian science.

Just "Theistic Natural Philosophy"?

The combination of premise criticism and conventional science suggested here is more generous to methodological naturalism than the "theistic science" some propose. It specifically envisages continuing research based on the naturalistic assumption even where the evidence on balance is contrary; all that is asked is honesty in labeling, an acknowledgment of a nontrivial case against the naturalistic assumption, whether the researchers agree with that case or not. In such special situations, continuing naturalistic research becomes a frank attempt to vindicate the naturalistic assumption or validate the extension of its scope in which the researcher already has personal confidence. Therefore it operates essentially in parallel with ultrascience in cases where premise criticism permits the latter.

In this context, it seems unreasonable to describe the union of parascience, premise criticism, and ultrascience as simply "theistic natural philosophy," as Van Till has suggested for "theistic science."8 Philosophy that can consider arguments for the existence of God as not qualified as "theistic." The threefold set of activities suggested here goes beyond natural philosophy to basic philosophical issues. By contrast, parascience by itself cannot qualify philosophically as more than apologetics for materialism or for the theistic naturalism or "creationomic" worldview of Van Till.

Given the associations words have in academic and popular usage, even the term "natural philosophy" would put ultrascience at an unfair disadvantage. If it should be that natural processes really cannot adequately account for the origin and development of life, ultrascience would be more in touch with the original spirit of science than is parascience without premise criticism. Therefore ultrascience seems a fair description. The term acknowledges that the activity lies beyond any conventional definition of science, but implies a just claim to its close relationship to conventional science, applying an extension of science's methods beyond its naturalistic limitation.

Ultrascience, of course, should be strictly limited to rational analysis of premise criticism's implications and free to criticize or reject the case for intelligent design. "Augustinian science" is theistic in the proper sense of starting from theism. This is legitimate in its proper context, based on confidence in biblical revelation, which has its own strong rationality outside the conceptual framework used here. But one cannot expect it to be widely accepted outside Christian institutions.

"God of the gaps" has little relevance. If theism does not depend on limiting methodological naturalism, as "gapophobics" argue, critiques of the general theory of evolution, along lines suggested here, do not put God on trial. They try methodological naturalism, an intellectual issue aside from religious questions.

In Conclusion

Names or labels can affect thinking. Thus many materialists insist on packaging their philosophy as part of "science." For sociological reasons, this cannot be changed much (as the ASA's guidelines for teaching science partially seek to do). What is needed is to promote the recognition that science is not all of one piece. This can be done by the widespread, persistent use of "parascience," or at least "noncritical science," to describe the general theory of evolution. Persistence would provoke irritation; irritation, debate; and debate, perhaps some academic and public consciousness of the issues. Hard core materialists would probably be moved only by the defeat of a court challenge to the teaching of careful premise criticism in a tax-supported U.S. educational institution.

My personal views on origins by no means coincide with the "guided evolution" of many intelligent design advocates. If one concedes any Divine intervention, there is a basic difficulty in "knowing" that such activity has been limited to cases where natural processes are demonstrably inadequate. Naturalists use this as an argument against any concession to intelligent design.9 But it cannot be a defense for intellectual dishonesty, even if unconscious, in censoring legitimate premise criticism in educational institutions. Of course, if naturalism lost its monopoly in origins studies, Christians, too, might be horrified by the preternatural speculations that replaced it. "What we know as Christians" includes Scripture's teaching that the human mind is influenced by an unseen world in reasonings relating to God.



1Alvin Plantinga, "Methodological Naturalism," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 49 (September 1997): 143–54.

2Keith Abney, "Naturalism and Nonteleological Science: A Way to Resolve the Demarcation Problem Between Science and Nonscience," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 49 (September 1997): 156–61.

3Howard J. Van Till, The Fourth Day: What the Bible and the Heavens are Telling Us About the Creation, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986).

4Phillip E. Johnson, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 38–9.

5Phillip E. Johnson, Reason in the Balance, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 93–7.

6Quoted by Plantinga, 145.

7Johnson (1997), 56–64.

8Howard J. Van Till, "Special Creationism in Designer Clothing: A Response to The Creation Hypothesis," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 47 (June 1995): 127.

9Richard Lewontin, quoted by Johnson (1997), 81.