Methodological Naturalism
 ( An Evolutionary Creationist Critique ) 

Howard Van Till, Ph.D.

This page is a section from the middle of Special Creationism in Designer Clothing: A Response to The Creation Hypothesis, an essay review in the ASA journal (PSCF), June 1995.  The book being reviewed is The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer (1995), edited by J. P. Moreland.

Down with methodological naturalism!

Philosopher J. P. Moreland follows his extensive introduction to the book with a chapter in which he presents his "critique of methodological naturalism and a limited defense of theistic science" (41).  Recall that, as it is defined and employed in this book, "theistic science" is a research program committed to the expectation that some of God's creative action would have been manifested as episodes of divine miraculous intervention in time.  Therefore, "Gaps in the fossil record are not problems in need of solution for creationists. ....  These phenomena are basic for creationists. ...  It is enough for creationists to use theological notions to guide them in the quest for scientific tests to establish the phenomena predicted by their theological constructs" (64).

But which theological constructs does one choose to employ?  Most noteworthy here is the disparity between the special creationist "construct" promoted in this work — that God has "directly intervened" in the formative history, including prehistory, of the world — and the position held by Augustine, with whose foundational advice Moreland opened the introduction to this book.  Augustine, in his extensive commentary on Genesis 1-3, De Genesi ad litteram, or The Literal Meaning of Genesis, explicitly rejects the special creationist construct and adopts the position that the functional and developmental economies of the created world were gapless from the very beginning. [2]

Moreland contrasts the "theistic science" research program, committed to special creationism, with one committed to methodological naturalism.  He defines methodological naturalism as a scientific research program committed to considering only those theories that are consistent with "a naturalist standpoint in explaining things in science" (33).  Here the term "naturalist" is given its meaning from philosophical naturalism.  In contrast to Christian theism, "Naturalism may be defined as the view that reality is exhausted by the spatiotemporal world of physical entities embraced by our scientific theories" (21).  Therefore, methodological naturalism is presented by Moreland (see also Stephen Meyer's chapter) as a scientific strategy that begins with philosophical naturalism, then strips away all explicit reference to the offensive atheistic metaphysics, leaving only the methodological rules that proscribe any consideration of divine action.  So defined, methodological naturalism, sometimes dubbed with the even more pejorative label, provisional atheism, should find no welcome within the Christian community.

How utterly frustrating, then, for me to see Howard J. Van Till identified by Moreland as one of those misguided Christians who, as discerned from "a straightforward reading of their writings," would affirm:  (1) that "natural science, by its very nature, presupposes and is constituted by methodological naturalism," and probably also  (2) that "the very nature of natural science entails the impropriety of theistic science" (42).  I do not wish here to belabor the matter of defining "natural science" or of specifying its rules of methodology, since that can soon degenerate into a trivial semantic exercise.  The term natural science can be defined in any way that one chooses.  Some definitions characterize science well; others do not.  Some definitions characterize science as experienced by those who do it; other definitions characterize science as perceived by those who talk about it.  But it should be clear to anyone that one's chosen definition for natural science has no bearing at all on the propriety or impropriety of a different research program that its proponents choose to call "theistic science." 

Do I think that "theistic science" is the best choice for the name of that enterprise?  No, but its proponents are free to call it whatever they wish.  My chief objection is that calling this broad enterprise-an enterprise broad enough, apparently, to reach apologetically significant conclusions regarding the reality of divine intervention-a form of science might suggest to some persons that the anti-theistic propaganda often presented in the name of science also has a chance of being apologetically substantive.  Perhaps the research program proposed in this book would be more aptly called theistic natural philosophy, a name that would better indicate that its scope is greater than what is ordinarily called natural science and a name that would also reflect the fact that its principal proposers (Plantinga, Moreland, Meyer) are philosophers, not scientists.

On the matter of methodological naturalism my concerns must be stated far more crisply.  To the best of my recollection, I have never approvingly employed the term methodological naturalism in my writing. [3]  Why not?  Because I have long had a profound distaste for that label, though it may be possible to define and employ it so Christians and other theists would have little objection to it.  But in most presentations claiming to offer a distinctively theistic perspective regarding the evaluation of contemporary natural science in general, or of the concept of biological evolution in particular, the term methodological naturalism is frequently placed in such close association with the terms philosophical naturalism, metaphysical naturalism, and provisional atheism that some malodorous transfer is unavoidable.  It is the familiar rhetorical strategy of "stench by proximity," in which the noun, naturalism, is perceived to have an odor so foul as to overpower the perfume of the qualifying adjective, methodological.

Consequently, instead of trying to deodorize and employ so problematic a term as methodological naturalism, I have chosen to focus on the concept of creation's functional integrity (or, if you prefer, the idea that the functional and developmental economies of the creation are gapless).  I have drawn, not from the fouled wells of metaphysical or philosophical naturalism, but from early Christian theological sources, primarily from biblical commentaries on Genesis written by Basil and Augustine.  Given that vision of what God has brought into being, I fully expect that our systematic, empirical investigation of the created world will provide us with an ever-growing knowledge of the awesome capacities with which this world has been gifted.

In this expectation, then, when I am faced with a gap in our understanding of some element in that economy (even a stubbornly persisting gap), I am not at all inclined to postulate that this gap in human understanding should be taken as compelling evidence for the existence of a gap in creation's economy that could be bridged only by a "special" act of God.  Rather, I take this gap as an attractive invitation to continue research in that area because something remarkably interesting may be lurking behind the veil of our present ignorance.  Furthermore, I take this position thoughtfully, not because of being asleep at the wheel of Christian scholarship and veering off into the quagmire of philosophical naturalism or into the swamp named "Do Whatever the Secular World Wills." 

Part of the difficulty in these matters is generated by the ambiguity that follows from the failure, very common in anti-evolution literature, to distinguish two very different meanings for the word naturalistic. [4]  One meaning, I shall call it naturalistic (narrow), is very limited in scope and simply refers to the idea that the physical behavior of some particular material system can be described in terms of the "natural" capacities of its interacting components and the interaction of the system with its physical environment.  Therefore there is a naturalistic (narrow) theory of planetary motion, or of star formation, or of earthquakes, or of cell behavior, or of photosynthesis, or of the development of a zygote into a mature organism.

So understood, naturalistic (narrow) speaks only to the idea of the functional integrity of a material system as it acts and interacts in time.  No stance regarding the ontological origin of its existence is either specified or implied.  Nor is the ultimate source of its capacities for behaving as it does, or its purpose in the larger context of all reality, or its relation to divine action or intention.  Defined in this way, naturalistic (narrow) has no elements or connotations that would be in any way objectionable in principle to Christian belief.

The other definition, which I shall call Naturalistic (broad), is far more expansive in scope.  It not only includes all of the elements of naturalistic (narrow), but it also superimposes the strong metaphysical stipulations that neither the existence nor the behavioral capacities of material systems derive from any divine source (thereby making a Creator unnecessary) and that the behavior of material systems can in no way serve in the attainment of any divine purpose or intention.  So defined, Naturalistic (broad) is essentially identical to materialistic and is, therefore, absolutely irreconcilable with Christian theism.  Any critique of methodological naturalism that fails to honor the distinction between the broad and the narrow meanings of naturalistic is, I believe, sure to generate more heat than light, more hostility than learning.


Here are excerpts from earlier in Van Till's review, and from its conclusion:

Evolutionary Creation

By "evolutionary creation"... I mean a concept of the Creator and the creation that includes the following propositions:

(1) That God, as presented in the Scriptures, and as the only and omnipotent Creator, is the sole source of both the existence and the capacities (for example, what matter and material systems can do) of the entire universe.

(2) That from the beginning, when the creation was brought into being from nothing, God has generously gifted the basic entities... [so] the functional and developmental economies of the creation are complete, not marked by any gaps that God would be obliged to bridge in time by extraordinary interventions.  ..... [omissions occur in Propositions 2, 3, 5, 6] .....

(4) That the creation, though gifted by God with a gapless developmental economy (not missing any capacities that would be needed to realize the historical formation of all structures and life-forms) is always open to God's action in it and to God's interaction with it.  Therefore, there is here no questioning of God's power or freedom to act in or interact with the creation; the question here is: What is the character of the created world in which God acts and with which God interacts?  Does it have, by God's generosity, a gapless economy, or is its economy marked by gaps or deficiencies that need to be bridged by special acts of God in time, acts in which God manipulates or coerces matter to assume structures or life-forms that it was not earlier equipped by God to actualize?  (Note: In this view miracles are acts freely performed by God for their timely revelatory or redemptive value, not obligatory acts needed to compensate for earlier omissions.)

(5) The scientific methodology that follows from this view of the created world is one that assumes the functional and developmental integrity of all physical and biological systems.  The pejorative label "methodological naturalism" (to be discussed later in his article) is, therefore, entirely inappropriate.  The methodological strategies associated with this perspective are not derived from philosophical naturalism, which takes both the existence and the astounding capacities of the universe as brute givens requiring no further explanation.  Its methodology is based instead on the presumption that the universe is God's creation and that he has generously gifted it from the beginning with a functionally and developmentally complete economy.  A broad spectrum of physical structures and life-forms would be realized in time without the need for extraordinary divine interventions to compensate for earlier omissions.  .....

Beginning on a Sour Note

Finally, let me comment about the book's beginning.  In his brief foreword, law professor Phillip Johnson, moving quickly and with long strides along a stepping-stone path of vaulting inferences, tells us that "Modern culture is ruled by a philosophy called scientific naturalism, which insists that the entire history of the cosmos belongs to the subject matter of science.  Science, by the same philosophy, is inherently committed to naturalism.  Naturalism is the doctrine that the cosmos has always been a closed system of material causes and effects that can never be influenced by anything from 'outside' — like God." 

Johnson continues, "Naturalism rules the secular academic world absolutely, which is bad enough.  What is far worse is that it rules much of the Christian world as well. ...  It is common for philosophers even at conservative Christian institutions to accept the rules of scientific naturalism, and to accept them for no better reason than that the secular world wills it to be so.  It is no wonder that the best students from these institutions so often emerge with a naturalistic outlook; that is how they have been taught to think" (7).

Notice how easy it is to exploit the ambiguity that follows when one chooses not to differentiate the narrow and broad meanings of naturalistic.  Notice also what is here being said about the many members of the ASA who are on the faculties of Christian educational institutions.  Given the irenic tone maintained by most of the contributors to this volume, I am disappointed that the editor chose to include so denunciatory a foreword as this.


2. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. John Hammond Taylor, vol. 41 and 42 in the series, Ancient Christian Writers (New York: Newman Press, 1982).

3.  For a sample of my explicit rejection of this term see my essay, "When Faith and Reason Cooperate" in Christian Scholar's Review, XXI:1, pp. 33-45, Sept., 1991.

4. See my contribution to "God and Evolution: An Exchange" (with Phillip E. Johnson) in First Things, No. 34, pp. 32-38, June/July. 1993; also reprinted in the book, Man and Creation, Michael Bauman ed. (Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College Press, 1993), pp. 269-286.

This website for Whole-Person Education has TWO KINDS OF LINKS:
an ITALICIZED LINK keeps you inside a page, moving you to another part of it, and
 a NON-ITALICIZED LINK opens another page.  Both keep everything inside this window, 
so your browser's BACK-button will always take you back to where you were.

Here are other related pages:

this page contains excerpts from
Special Creationism in Designer Clothing:
A Response to The Creation Hypothesis

by Howard Van Till

Methodological Naturalism
(pages by other authors)

This page — written by Howard Van Till, with
excerpts selected and assembled by Craig Rusbult
— is

Copyright © 1995 by Howard Van Till
all rights reserved