The Non-Scientific Effects of
Methodological Naturalism

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

This page builds on the foundation of a page about the compatibility of science and religion that asks, "If you learn and use science, will this weaken your faith?" and "Are science and religion at war?", and examines the relationships between science and natural process, miracles, and scientism.  Here are some excerpts:

comment:  I've deleted this section (with quotes from the page about science-religion compatibility) to avoid duplication because, like many other parts of this page, it has been moved into another page, into Science and Worldviews in the part (in the right column) that describes how science can influence worldviews.  /  Eventually, probably sometime in March, I'll finish editing this page (the one you're reading) so it contains only sections that offer "added value" that you won't find in other pages.  Until then, I recommend reading "Science and Worldviews" first.

    Non-Scientific Effects of
    Methodological Naturalism

    Two Limits for Science
    What are the limits for what can claim to be science?  One proposal is methodological naturalism (MN) which requires that scientific theories can postulate only natural causes.
    What are the limits for what MN-Science can claim to explain?  If we decide to accept MN, a second limit is logically necessary:  If an event really does involve a non-natural cause, any explanation of the event by MN-Science (in terms of only natural causes) will be incomplete or incorrect.  This limit, regarding the potential for unavoidable error in MN-Science, is MN-Humility.

    A Change of Mind
    In 1998, I was willing to support either of two options: accepting MN (and MN-Humility) or rejecting MN.  Summarizing the rationality of MN-plus-Humility, I said: "We can view a restricted MN-science as one aspect of a broader 'search for truth' that considers all possibilities without imposing metaphysically biased restrictions on theorizing.  In this open search for truth,... MN-science can be a valuable resource that should be respected as an expert witness, but it should not be the judge and jury when we're defining reality and rationality."
    Two years later, when I began revising my overviews of Origins Questions, I concluded that it was more rational to reject MN, mainly because I had become convinced that open science is better science, but also because of the rarity and futility of humility.

    The Futility of Humility
    In principle, a combination of "MN-Science plus MN-Humility" is logically acceptable.  In practice, usually the result is not satisfactory because even when MN-Humility is acknowledged (which is rare) it is not effective.  Why?
    Think about what happens when a "non-scientific" design theory and a "scientific" non-design theory both claim to describe the same event, such as the origin of life.  Due to the cultural authority of science, the nonscientific theory is not respected because most people assume that, for a theory about nature, "not scientific" means "probably not true."  Instead, the scientific theory is assumed to be more plausible, even if the scientific evidence does not support it.  And in a classroom where "only science is taught," only the non-design theory is taught.

    Bypass the Process, Claim the Support
    The Grand Conclusion of MN-Science — that no matter what is being studied, or what is the evidence, it happened by natural process — is actually the assumption of MN.  The circular logic of MN, which converts a naturalistic assumption into a naturalistic conclusion, is automatic and unavoidable.  But usually MN-Humility is ignored.  Instead of explaining the logical weakness of MN-Science, there is an implication that the assumption made by MN (that it happened by natural process) is a conclusion reached by science, and is therefore true.  MN provides a way to bypass the process of science and then claim the authority of science as support.

    Is methodological naturalism theologically acceptable?
    Is a naturalistic science compatible with Christianity?  Yes.  By defining terms carefully — by distinguishing between methodology and philosophy, and between naturalism and naturism — we see that Methodological Naturalism is not Philosophical Naturism:
    According to a non-theistic religious philosophy of naturism, nature is all that exists, with no God and no divine action, so everything that happens is caused by matter-energy in natural operation.  This philosophical naturism differs from methodological naturalism in two ways.  First, philosophical is not methodological;  a theist can adopt a naturalistic methodology (for the purpose of doing science) but not a naturalistic philosophy (about the way the world really is).  Second, naturism is not naturalism;  theists believe that natural process is designed, created, and sustained by God, and possibly is guided by God, so even though naturalism means "it all happened naturally" this does not mean "it all happened without God," which is the claim of naturism.

    Methodology can influence Philosophy
    In principle, methodology and philosophy can be independent.  In practice, they are interactive and each influences the other. 
    In principle, MN-humility can prevent the naturalistic methodology of MN-science from influencing our philosophical thinking about "the way the world is," about what does and doesn't happen, and what is and isn't real.
    In practice, methodology often influences our thinking because naturalistic assumptions automatically become naturalistic conclusions about "the way the world is according to science," and many people are influenced by science.  People can be influenced because they want to believe what MN-science is telling them, or because they trust science but they don't realize that naturalistic "scientific conclusions" are not scientific conclusions.  Instead, these conclusions are just assumptions that are cleverly disguised, that are difficult to recognize when the laundering of circular logic changes assumptions into conclusions.
    According to Webster's Dictionary, scientism is "an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science."  Most people, including me, trust science as a method that usually is effective for attaining reliable knowledge, searching for truth about nature, and developing useful technology.  We think science is a valuable resource that should be respected as "an expert witness" but that science (whether it's MN-science or open science) should not be "the judge and jury" when defining reality and rationality.  But people with "an exaggerated trust" use MN-science as the foundation for constructing an atheistic worldview about "the way the world is."  They think that belief in God is unscientific and is wrong.  They think belief in God is a delusion that should be explained scientifically in terms of individual psychology and group sociology.  But their claims are based on scientism, not science.

    Open Science and Open Discussions
    Two proposals are discussed below:  1) we should adopt an Open Science;  but if not, then  2) in situations where a Closed Science has been adopted, there should be a clear explanation of MN-Humility and an open discussion of ideas that are relevant and important.

    Should we apologize or improve?
    The advantages of an open science — liberated from rigid-MN — are described in a page about methodological naturalism.  The main reason to reject MN is its logical deficiency:  MN demands that scientists should ignore some possibilities, even though logic demands that scientists should consider all possibilities.
    the timing of MN-plus-Humility:  First, we reach a conclusion by using an approach (MN) that is logically deficient.  Second, with MN-Humility we apologize for the logical weakness of our approach by explaining why the naturalistic conclusion might be wrong.  /  a summary of the two steps:  Bypass the process of science, and claim the authority of science.
    Another option, which seems more rational, is to fix the deficiency by letting logic (not naturalism) be the highest priority in scientific thinking.  Appropriate timing is important.  If we want science to be an effective method for constructing accurate theories about nature, we should let scientists use the entire process of science (including a logical evaluation of all competitive theories) when they are determining the conclusions of science.

    Hidden Arguments and Open Discussions
    When MN is adopted in science, how can we minimize the negative consequences in science education, both inside and outside the classroom?  To reduce the possibility of atheistic implications (with science implying naturalism and then atheistic naturism) and biased evaluations, we can improve the neutrality of our educational philosophy and the quality of our thinking.  { Of course, these improvements are useful whether science is closed or open. }
    Occasionally an atheistic worldview is explicitly stated, as when Carl Sagan (winner of awards for science education) opened Cosmos by asserting that "The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be."  More often, atheism (or deism) is implicitly communicated, even if this is not intended, when "no theistic action in scientific descriptions of the universe" implies "no theistic action in the universe."  Due to these implications, ignoring religious perspectives (as in a simplistic policy of "teaching only science") does not produce a neutral balance.
    Implicit arguments can be persuasive because only one view is presented, with no opportunity for counter-argument.  Because the arguments are hidden, they are not critically analyzed, so fallacious reasoning can survive and thrive.

    By contrast, open discussions will encourage understanding and critical thinking.  Possible discussion topics include the goals and methods of science, arguments for and against MN, the logic of MN-Humility, interpretations of natural process, scientific evidence for and against theories of non-design and design.  Or there could be an objective evaluation of nondesign theories, even if design is not mentioned.  During discussions, important ideas from major viewpoints should be expressed accurately (with no weak, distorted "strawmen") so the ideas can be understood and evaluated.
    MN-Humility can be introduced by waiting for a topic, such as the origin of life, when humility is justified, and then explaining how MN-science ignores the possibility of design-action, and why "nondesign (with undirected natural process) for most events" is compatible with "design-action (either natural or supernatural) for occasional events."
    Strategies for coping with the challenges that teachers face when they try to teach wisely and well, with integrity and skill, are outlined in Origins Education.
    A respect for religious perspectives, with an absence of "faith versus reason" implications, is important.  Without respect, a discussion of important ideas can be harmful.  With respect and wisdom, it can be helpful and educationally productive.


As explained in Naturalism and the Origin of Life, scientists who are studying the origin of a feature should consider all possibilities:  1w (a natural event of low probability), 1w* (an event with apparently low probability that in reality is highly probable because there are so many universes), 1x (a current naturalistic theory is approximately true), 1y (a future naturalistic theory will be approximately true), 1z (a naturalistic theory is true, but we will never propose and accept it), 2A (natural design and construction), or 2B (supernatural design and creation).

    As described earlier, methodological naturalism and philosophical naturism differ in two important ways:

    Does a naturalistic methodology require a naturalistic philosophy?  No.  Most scientists think that philosophy is not very important in their science, and usually they are correct.  { For example, MN makes no difference in most areas of science, since nobody wants to propose non-MN theories in these areas. }  For most scientists, it's easy to put philosophy and methodology into separate categories, and to temporarily adopt a methodology of "naturalistic assumptions" while they are doing science, even if they are not philosophical naturalists.
    Does naturalistic methodology necessarily lead to naturalistic philosophy?  No.  It is not logically justifiable to convert the methodological assumptions of MN-science into a philosophical worldview about "the way the world is," including what is and isn't real.  But some influence is possible, because MN-assumptions automatically become scientific conclusions about "the way the world is," and many people accept these conclusions about reality without realizing that some naturalistic "conclusions" are actually the naturalistic assumptions of MN.

    "natural" does not mean "without God" if we define natural as "normal appearing" (which doesn't affirm or deny supernatural action) and undirected natural process as "appearing to be undirected and normal."  A theist believes that God is actively involved in natural process because God designed and created nature, and constantly sustains nature; and God can guide nature so one natural result occurs instead of another natural result.  Empirical evidence cannot let us distinguish between theistic and nontheistic interpretations of normal-appearing natural events. *  And a naturalistic formative history is compatible with miracles in human history.  /  * But evidence for an intelligent design of nature may support a theistic claim that natural properties were designed by God.
    The main differences between naturalism and naturism are summarized in the table below, which shows the distinctions between theistic creationism (TC) proposing young-earth creation or old-earth creation, creation by theistic evolution (TE), deism (D), and atheistic philosophical naturism (PN), regarding four questions:  Was the universe designed and created by God?  Is God involved in natural process, by creating and/or directing it?  Have miracles occurred (and are they occurring) in the salvation history of humans?  Did miracles occur in formative history?

 universe designed/created by God? 
God involved in natural process?
miracles in salvation history?
 miracles in formative history? 

If we define "naturalism" to be a "mere naturalism" that involves only the claim that all events (in part of history, or in all of history) occurred by normal-appearing natural process, then the no-answers are naturalistic:  there is a naturalistic formative history in theistic evolution (so it is partly naturalistic), and a naturalistic total history in deism and naturism (so they are fully naturalistic).  Notice the meaning-difference (symbolized by a color-difference) between no and no:  three views have no-answers, but only naturism has no-answers.  Do you see the difference between a mere-naturalism (with some "yes" answers") and an atheistic-naturism that answers "no" to all four questions?  theistic evolution is partly naturalistic, and deism is fully naturalistic, but these two naturalisms are not naturism.

    Evolution and Atheism:  Some people, including both atheists and theists, try to link evolution with atheism by implying that "If natural evolution could produce the complexity we observe in nature, then God either does not exist or is not active in history."  This claim, which ignores the possibility that biological complexity was produced by a designing of natural process and/or by a guiding of natural process, should be challenged.  And even though evolution is required for atheism, so "if atheism then evolution" is justified, a reversed claim that "if evolution then atheism" is not justified.

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The ideas in this page are explored
more thoroughly in other pages about
the mutual interactions between
non-scientific factors and science ,
especially in Science and Worldviews.

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