To: ..............
From: Jitse van der Meer
Re.: paper on naturalism
Date: March 8, 1996

Dear friends,

I decided to distribute this paper through evolution@Calvin.EDU and
not via private e-mail because some of you requested permission for
distribution in other discussion groups. Please feel free to
distribute this paper as you see fit. Obviously, I would
appreciate the benefit of your insightful comments. This paper is
being reviewed for publication, so please refer to it as an
unpublished manuscript. I am looking forward to your comments.

Jitse M. van der Meer



Jitse M. van der Meer

Pascal Centre
Redeemer College
Ancaster, Ontario

(Preprint: November 24, 1995)

Comments to:


My thesis is that Christians are mistaken in their belief that
material reality can be understood without reference to non-
material created causes, such as mind, or to non-material uncreated
causes, such as God. The reasons I offer are that Christians know
of the existence of non-material beings such as spirits and God and
that ignoring this leads to a distorted view of reality or even a
neglecting of empirical evidence. Broadly conceived, I suggest
that materialism can be excused to be methodological only if it is
open to revision, but that this is seriously hampered by the
psychological and sociological power of beliefs antagonistic to
theistic beliefs.

The first set of these beliefs concerns the materiality of the
world. Those deeply committed to the belief that reality is
nothing but matter (monistic materialists) are extremely unlikely
to revise their materialism. Those who accept the existence of a
realm in addition to matter (dualists), be it a mental or a
supernatural realm, and also believe that this non-material realm
has no effects in the material world, have a weaker but still very
robust attachment to materialism. For them science is concerned
only with matter. Finally, revision is unlikely among dualists who
believe that God and mind have effects in material reality
(interventionists and interactionists, respectively), but also
believe that science ought not to be concerned with this non-
material dimension.

I then argue that those who do believe the non-material is the
business of science still have a hard time limiting materialism,
but that this is due to a second and different set of beliefs.
These beliefs do not concern the nature of reality, but the nature
and purpose of explanation. I show that the ideal of the unity of
scientific knowledge forces a preference for explanations in
material terms even when the non-material presents itself as a
possibility or when it is in conflict with empirical evidence.

I then suggest that science needs to expand its methodology
beyond the current confines. This expansion consists of accepting
non-material causes in scientific explanations, and using broader
criteria for theory choice. Instead of explanations that use
material causes only, science needs multi-dimensional explanations
that admit the causal efficacy of purpose and intent. Not only is
the pursuit of several different explanations more adequate for a
multi-dimensional reality, but it also provides a way of limiting
one-dimensional explanations including those developed in terms of
matter alone. This is an hermeneutical approach to explanation in
the natural sciences which emphasizes "understanding" and sees
explanation in material terms as one form of it. Criteria for
theory choice include not only the standard consistency with
observation, internal consistency, simplicity, scope, fruitfulness,
accuracy, coherence, etc., but also consistency with conceptual and
religious beliefs about the nature of reality and about the nature
and purpose of explanation. This creates the possibility of
accounting for the historic role of beliefs in the construction of
knowledge and opens the possibility of proposing rules for the
interaction between religion and science. To a large extent the
nature of these interactions remains to be explored.


Interpreting natural phenomena is a complex process because
contributions come from observation, logic, and a variety of
methodological, ontological and religious beliefs. Methodological
materialism is a rule of science that tries to simplify
interpretation by excluding some of these contributions. It
prescribes that, in explaining natural phenomena, one should act as
if reality consists of nothing but matter. It assumes that one can
act as if the existence of non-material causes, whether created
(mind, spirit) or uncreated (God), does not make a difference in
our understanding of the material world. The exclusion of
uncreated causes (God) is known as methodological atheism, that is
the view that "no hypothesis according to which God has done this
or that can qualify as a scientific hypothesis".[1]

The meaning of the terms naturalism and materialism depends on the
meaning of one's conception of matter and nature. One can have,
for instance, spiritualistic and materialistic naturalism.
Likewise, there is materialistic monism such as physicalism (there
is no other matter than physical matter) and materialistic
pluralism (for instance, there is biological in addition to
physical matter). The contemporary discussion on metaphysical
naturalism in science, however, has a narrower focus. One set of
questions concerns the effects in the material world of non-
material created causes: do they identifiably affect matter? Does
the mind act on the body? Do spirits affect matter? In these
questions metaphysical naturalism narrows to metaphysical
materialism which denies the reality of the non-material. The
second set is about effects of non-material uncreated causes in the
material world. Does God act in the world and can this action be
identified as such? Here the interest of metaphysical naturalism
narrows to questions about the existence of God.

Methodological materialism raises two more sets of questions. Do
explanations of material phenomena need reference to non-material
created causes? Ought the human will to be included in
explanations of the movement of an arm? Finally, do explanations
of material phenomena need reference to non-material non-created
causes? Ought God's action in the world to be included in
explanations of the design of organisms? Or, if explanations in
terms of material causes are sufficient, do they need to be
evaluated in terms of what is known about the action of non-
material causes, created and uncreated, in matter?

I ask whether methodological materialism can avoid becoming a form
of metaphysical naturalism in science. I argue that materialism
can be excused to be methodological only if it is open to revision,
and that this requires replacing methodological materialism with a
methodological pluralism. Methodological pluralism is intended to
protect methodological materialism from the falsehood and
irrationality conferred on it in combination with metaphysical
naturalism and evolution.[2] I also suggest that the combination
of methodological materialism and the ideal of the universal
validity of scientific knowledge is self-contradictory. I conclude
that Christian theism provides the best context for methodological
pluralism because of the ontological diversity included in its
doctrine of creation.


Methodological materialism maximizes control over nature. It does
this by prescribing that the causes in causal explanation must be
efficient causes to ensure predictability, and that they must be
material causes to ensure the universal validity of knowledge.
Efficient causation means that "If C happens, then (and only then)
E is always produced by it".[3] Predictability is ensured by
letting the cause precede the effect so that when the cause happens
the effect can be predicted to happen. In contrast, predictability
is diminished or absent in explanation referring to causes that
follow the effect, such as goals and intentions. Since Galileo,
such final causes have been banned from the domain of legitimate
science. Predictability is diminished or absent as well from
explanation in terms of causes that are unique (historical) because
they cannot be repeated. Finally, no prediction is possible when
explanation refers to occult or divine causes because they cannot
be known or manipulated.

Further, the belief that causes must be material (and efficient)
causes is claimed to ensure the universal validity of scientific
knowledge. This follows from the belief that the most universal
characteristic of reality is its material basis as opposed to, for
instance, goal-directedness which is found only in organisms. Thus
methodological materialism makes possible public agreement on the
type of phenomena and explanation that characterize science.[4]
Minds and divinities are excluded as objects of investigation and
as explanatory factors for the same reason occult forces were
excluded, namely that one cannot know how they will behave.

Methodological materialism is important because it acknowledges the
materiality of creation. It is reasonable and appropriate for
Christian theists to refer to the materiality of the world in
explanations and theories. Questions about the material dimension
of reality minimally require answers in material terms. The
importance of methodological materialism also derives from the
problems attached to its benefits. I have selected three
categories of problems. Methodological materialism destroys
theism, it needs theism to prevent it from functioning as
metaphysical materialism, and it is inadequate to deal with


What does it mean for materialism to be held methodologically?
Materialism can be held in at least two different ways. For
instance, you can explain human behaviour in terms of material
causes. To the extent that it is known or believed that humans are
not merely material beings, such materialism is held as a fiction
or fruitful error. The fruit consists of predictions about the
material behaviour of humans that might otherwise be hard to come
by.[5] Heuristic or guiding fictions are common in science and
mathematics. The ideal gas in physics, Goethe's plant archetype
and the wild-type phenotype of an organism in biology and the
average college professor in sociology are examples of fictions
used because they help in gaining control over the phenomenon to be
studied. Fictions are not hypotheses because the latter are
potentially true whereas the former are known to be false.[6]
Rather, fictions are a necessary evil to be gotten rid of as soon
as feasible. Vaihinger insists that a fiction "is not to be taken
for reality, but represents a preliminary system designed for
heuristic and practical purposes."[7] Fictional materialism cannot
be problematic for Christians because falsehoods cannot contradict
Christian truths.

In addition to fictional materialism there is hermeneutical
materialism. To the extent that humans are unexplored, materialism
is applied provisionally as a method of discovery of the unknown
with a mind open to either the truth or the falsity of the result.
It is used as a metaphor. That is, one learns about the unknown
aspects of a human being by creative comparison with the known
material aspects. This involves a transfer of meaning between
knowledge of material reality and of the unknown. Human cognition
appears to be unable to do without both fiction and metaphor.[8]
I will argue that Christians can hold materialism as metaphor.

I suggest that a necessary requirement for materialism to be
methodological in the heuristic sense is that it be revisable.
There are two reasons. First, any guide to the study of reality
must be appropriate to the subject matter. This introduces beliefs
about the subject matter into the methodology of science. For
Christians, the contingency of reality upon the will of God means
that we must be open to any possible relation between the material
and the non-material. We must also be open to the possibility that
this duality does not exhaust all of reality. Therefore,
materialism should be held as a revisable guide for the study of
reality. The grounds for revision must be broad, encompassing
experience, logic and metaphysical as well as religious beliefs.

The second reason derives from the metaphoricity of methodological
materialism. Looking at reality as if it were an organism or a gas
cloud has two simultaneous effects. It focuses attention on one
class of possible phenomena and causes such as the material and,
thereby, excludes other classes such as the non-material. This is
fine as long as a plurality of metaphors is available for use, and
the use of a particular metaphor is a matter of free choice. In
reality, and this is my main point, the freedom to revise
materialism is constrained by ontological, epistemological and
axiological beliefs. I will argue that the Christian faith best
fulfils the epistemological, ontological and axiological conditions
for a revisable materialism because Christians are least likely to
be constrained by the beliefs that transform methodological
materialism into metaphysical materialism. The transforming effect
of these beliefs will be explained in sections 3.1-3.7.

3.1. Logical Independence.

If religious claims would entail scientific claims and vice versa,
religious beliefs about reality such as religious materialism would
block the possible revision of materialism. The absence of such
relations, therefore, is a condition for materialism to be
methodological. This condition seems to be fulfilled. There can
be no logical relation between a religious belief, strictly
speaking, and a logical proposition, strictly speaking, for the
same reason as there can be no logical connection between
observation and theory or between observation and religious belief.
This is because they are categorically different kinds of things.
However, they are categorically different only if science were
nothing but a logical-empirical endeavour, if scientific theories
were purely logical artefacts, and if religious beliefs were purely
emotional or fiduciary phenomena without conceptual content.

These reduced views of science and religion are questionable
abstractions. In reality there is more to scientific theory than
logic; and there is more to religious belief than trust and
emotion.[9] This is evident from the failure of scientific
materialists to refrain from drawing metaphysical or religious
implications from their observations and theories, and from the
failure of philosophers of science to separate science and religion
despite their logical independence.[10] Moreover, there must be
relations between theory and observation otherwise there would be
no science. There must be relations between observation and
religious belief otherwise there would be no religion. Likewise,
and as a matter of historical fact, there are relations between
religious belief and scientific theory.[11]

In other words, the absence of logical relations between religious
belief and scientific theory is a necessary but insufficient
condition for their independence, and for the revisability of
materialism. In addition, there should be no psychological,
historical, religious and semantic relations between the two.[12]
Some of these conditions and others will be the focus of the rest
of this paper. They include the depth of beliefs as well as
particular beliefs about the existence of the non-material and of
God, about His relation to creation, and about the goals of
scientific knowledge.

3.2. Kinds of Belief and Depth of Commitment.

Another condition for the revisability of materialism is that one
should not be committed to materialism in an existential or
religious way. This concerns the depth of the beliefs present in
the context of methodological materialism. The deeper one is
committed to materialism the more difficult it will be to revise
it. The depth of commitment to a belief depends on how the belief
functions and this depends in part on its content. I distinguish
between commitment to truth as a relation involving the whole
person with God or a pseudo-God (the world) and the conceptual
apprehension of truth. True religion is a whole-hearted,
undifferentiated and existential commitment of the whole person to
God. Quasi-religion involves such a commitment to the world. Such
existential commitments are seen to have content that can be
conceptualized in beliefs about God and about the world.
Theologies are systematic and deepened attempts at conceptualizing
the truth about God or pseudo-gods while the sciences attempt to
conceptualize truths about the world.

Only to the extent that a belief can be made explicit, can it be
exposed to rational argument and rational doubt. Existential or
religious commitments such as religious materialism cannot be made
altogether explicit in a conceptual way because it is an
existential frame of mind within which one dwells while attending
to the business of understanding the world. Existential beliefs
are held quasi-religiously with a very deep commitment while
conceptual beliefs are held more loosely, comparatively speaking.
Materialism as a religious belief cannot be doubted theoretically
because it is in the nature of implicit belief to be committed to
it. This is not to say that religious materialism cannot be
revised, but that such a revision requires a religious conversion.
Polanyi observed that "Since the sceptic does not consider it
rational to doubt what he himself believes, the advocacy of
'rational doubt' is merely the sceptic's way of advocating his own
beliefs".[13] This means that methodological materialism loses its
revisability in the hands of philosophical materialists and becomes
a philosophical or quasi-religious materialism.

3.3. The Possibility of a Non-Material Reality.

To be open to revision of materialism one must believe in the
possibility of the existence of the non-material. Otherwise, the
non-material could not be brought to bear upon methodological
materialism. This condition excludes quasi-religious materialists
because their materialism is prescriptive[14], dogmatic,
methodical, and characterized by an unconditional commitment and an
all-encompassing scope.

As a conceptual belief, however, materialism has a limited scope
and is held with a commitment that is conditional and open to
rational doubt. Methodological materialism may be seen merely as
a strategy to solve the problems concerning the explanation and
control of the material world, having no metaphysical implications.
The issue of existential doubt does not arise because the
materialism is not held existentially. Agnostics and theists are
among those who could hold materialism as a revisable conceptual
belief. Agnostics believe that the question whether reality is
material, non-material or both has not been decided because the
evidence is considered inconclusive.[15] Their primary concern is
with the possibility of rejecting one of these possibilities and,
therefore, they hold materialism as a working hypothesis which
could be false. However, believing that there might be a non-
material realm is only a necessary, but not a sufficient condition
for revisability. One must also believe that the non-material
affects material reality.

3.4. Can the Non-Material Affect Material Reality?

Revisability of materialism requires that one believes the non-
material realm can affect the material realm. This excludes the
non-interventionists among Christian theists because they believe
God does not act in material reality. It also excludes non-
interactionists because they believe that mind or spirit does not
act on body. However, the possibility of interaction between body
and mind or of intervention of God in nature is given with their
belief in the existence of the non-material. This belief weakens
their commitment to materialism compared to that of materialists,
especially if there are other religious beliefs that require
intervention and interaction.[16] For instance, belief in a God
who cares for his people requires a God who intervenes in material
reality. As well, the religious belief in life after death entails
the independent existence of the human spirit which must be capable
of interaction with the body.

3.5. Can Science Include the Non-Material?

Also excluded from holding materialism open to revision are those
interventionists and interactionists who want to limit science to
the study of material phenomena. They hold materialism as a
guiding fiction or fruitful error in order to preserve the
universal validity of scientific knowledge and predictability.
Because they claim to be open to the rejection or limitation of
methodological materialism, they appear to be in the best position
to hold materialism methodologically. That is, provided the
materialism can be rejected or limited. I will argue that this is
possible, but difficult due to the priority of explanation in
material terms (section 3.6.) and to the power of beliefs about the
purpose of science (section 3.7.).

3.6. Can Methodological Materialism be Limited to Appropriate Cases?

One way of finding the limits of methodological materialism is to
look for experiences of the non-material. Let us imagine, for the
sake of the argument, that God created from nothing first matter
and energy without the potential to evolve into life. Then He
created life, but without the potential to evolve into self-
conscious and religious beings. This required a final act of
creation. The question is, how do we know that the emergence of
matter, life and mind needs explanation rather than acceptance as
givens of reality? Methodological materialism recommends that
whenever the non-material shows itself as a possibility,
explanations in material terms are to be preferred over those in
non-material terms. Methodological materialism as an ideal of
explanation will lead us right past non-material causes and givens
and guides us to construct an unbroken chain of material cause and
effect across these junctures. It will do this even despite
empirical evidence against the possibility of the transition of
matter to life.[17] The result may be the construction of a
virtual reality consisting of large-scale evolution from matter to
man with God at the beginning placing the potential for all of
reality's diversity in matter.

Virtual realities are routinely employed in science. The problem
is not with their employment, but with their identification and
correction. Failure to correct them leads to a lack of
intelligibility[18] which can have important practical
implications. Excluding non-material causes has resulted in a
distortion of knowledge of the material world. In physics, for
instance, the existence of a material aether was invented by Kepler
and Newton because they could not accept that material bodies would
affect each other through a non-material force acting across empty
space.[19] In biology, we can think of the distortions introduced
by behaviourism in the study of animal and human behaviour. For
instance, the study of psychophysical phenomena such as the lifting
of an arm requires explanation in terms of will power or
imagination. We know about the consequences for health care of
ignoring the effects of the mind on the body.[20]

Correction of distortions associated with virtual realities in
science is important. Correction is also possible. For instance,
the existence of a material aether was rejected on empirical
grounds. Sometimes correction requires deeper changes in
fundamental beliefs about reality. For instance, science has
accepted givens that require no further explanation. The
acceptance of inertial motion as a given rather than as something
to be explained, heralded the transition from Aristotelian to
classical Newtonian physics. Acceptance of such givens usually
signals a major conceptual revolution and involves the weighing of
observations, of the interpretation of experience, of beliefs about
the nature of reality as well as of beliefs about ideals of
explanation. Inertial motion, for instance, was initially accepted
as a given for aesthetic reasons and not on the basis of
experience, although that came later. Therefore, consistency with
various beliefs about reality is as important in such transitions
as consistency with empirical evidence. Below I will propose to
sanction this situation as methodological pluralism.

So far, however, corrections have been made within the confines of
methodological materialism. There has been no revolution
questioning this rule. The case of inertial motion did not
challenge methodological materialism. Is it possible to
incorporate into science potential non-material givens and causes
without turning them into virtual material realities? How can
complex behaviour in animals, such as feeding or nest building be
explained in terms of non-material "drives" or "motivations" while
explanation in terms of final causes has been excluded from science
(physics) since Galileo. Or take the role of information in
explaining the functioning of organisms and societies. It is
interesting because information can be measured, but it is non-
material. This inclusion of non-material causes is consistent with
methodological materialism, however, because the assumption is that
eventually non-material givens and causes will find interpretations
in material terms and that these interpretations will find support
in experience. Prigogine's theory of the self-organization of
matter and energy into complex, information processing entities is
an example. Methodological materialism forces an anti-realist
attitude towards the non-material in science.[21] Clearly,
methodological materialism effectively neutralizes any scientific
challenges and requires a challenge at the methodological level.
Below I propose to provide this challenge by adopting a
methodological pluralism in science.

3.7. The Purpose of Science.

Finally, the revisability of methodological materialism is undone
by the ideal of controlling nature which is one of the main
purposes of science. This purpose is served among others by the
ideal of the universal validity of scientific knowledge. Without
limitations on the domain of validity, this ideal confers universal
validity upon explanations in material terms and thereby excludes
revision of methodological materialism.

This creates a trap for Christians. A common strategy for avoiding
conflict between faith and science among Christians is to deny the
universal validity of scientific knowledge by reducing science to
physics. For instance, it is often argued that the neo-Darwinean
theory of evolution has no implications for Christian theism
because it deals only with the physical aspect of humanity. Since
physics does not deal with religion its explanations have no
religious implications, so the argument goes. However, if the
claim of universal validity for physical knowledge is not
relinquished physics becomes a model for true knowledge in
theology. An extreme example is Tipler's claim to have
demonstrated the existence of God and of a resurrection from the
dead using physics alone. The extent to which physics models his
"theology" shows when, after defining the physical universe as "the
totality of all that exists" he states: "Thus, if God exists,
He/She is either the universe or part of it."[22] Few Christians
will accept this demonstration, but this species of argument is
common among them.

In conclusion, Christians are among those predisposed to revise
methodological materialism: they are not religiously committed to
materialism and they believe in the existence of a non-material
reality. However, Christians are divided about other conditions
for the revisability of methodological materialism such as the
reduction of science to pure reason and observation, the reduction
of religion to pure emotion, and the effects of the non-material on
the material. This is why a methodological pluralism is necessary.


I turn now to the implications of methodological materialism for
Christianity. The conjunction of methodological materialism with
the ideal of the universal validity of scientific knowledge, when
applied to theology, destroys Christian theism. Among other
things, it makes religion naturalistic. If God had created
elementary matter and energy with the potential to produce today's
world without his continued unnatural involvement such as in His
personal communication with people, then not only the capacity for
religious belief, but also its content would have to be a function
of the inner dynamics of matter and energy. Any knowledge of God
originating "from below" could never be identified as knowledge of
a transcendent God because methodological materialism prohibits an
account of religious experience in terms of God's action.
Likewise, methodological materialism fails to account for vast
stretches of human behaviour that are fundamental from a religious
and ethical point of view. For instance, it fails as a rule for
the explanation of altruism in humans.[23]

Furthermore, divine action channelled through matter would be
limited by the possibilities of matter. For instance, the
possibility of a creation ex nihilo, the virgin birth of Jesus, his
incarnation and resurrection from the dead would be excluded. Also
excluded would be communication with a non-material being. When
Christians communicate with God they would be communicating only
with themselves, taking comfort in an illusion that may have only
biological or psychological advantages.[24] What I have just
described are manifestations of a theology that destroys
Christianity. Of course, not all Christians fall into the trap
that causes this destruction. A dualism between nature and
supernature provides one escape. For instance, if the capacity for
religious belief emerged due to the internal workings of matter,
and if as a Christian one wants to avoid taking the existence of
God as an illusion, then minimally this capacity of having
religious belief needs to be filled with specific content from the
supernatural realm of God. Therefore, Christian methodological
materialists appear to have no choice, but to be dualists. That
is, to accommodate God on a second supernatural floor added to the
ground floor of material reality.

The division of reality into a natural and a supernatural realm
does not necessarily exclude interaction between these realms or
between the ways we come to know them, that is between faith and
science. In practice, however, a split view of reality is often
associated with a split view of knowledge of the two realms.
Partly because of the success of methodological materialism, many
theists believe the non-material is irrelevant for understanding
the material world, even though they also believe that God acts in
the material world. They believe that explanations in terms of
God's action in the world or in terms of created non-material
causes, such as mind, are not appropriate for understanding the
physical properties, physical behaviour and formative history of
the universe, to use Van Till's categories.[25]

As a result, there is no relation between science and religion.
This is problematic because many Christians also believe that their
faith ought to affect all the dimensions of their life and this
includes scholarship. For many this relation has become limited to
exemplifying Christ in how one deals with ethical issues such as
the environment, abortion, or euthanasia. Excluded from
consideration is how one deals with theory choice, let alone with
the influence religious beliefs may have on the content of
theories. However, religious beliefs have made a difference in
science.[26] Moreover, there are reasons to believe that religious
beliefs ought to make a difference in science.[27] If this is
correct, and I believe it is, then the preference of a majority of
christian scientists for a dualistic separation of religion and
science is a bad omen for christian scholarship. Thus the question
whether one can be both a Christian and a methodological
materialist is pressing.[28] I have argued that Christians are
among those in the best position to hold materialism
methodologically because they are least likely to be constrained by
beliefs that transform methodological materialism into a form of
metaphysical naturalism.


I propose to cure the maladies of methodological materialism with
methodological pluralism. Recently, Plantinga (1995) suggested
that methodological materialism may be appropriate for some but not
all disciplines. I propose to develop this suggestion into a
methodological pluralism for two reasons. First, methodology ought
to be shaped by reality, and that reality is, I believe, multi-
dimensional.[29] Second, methodology ought to be guided by the
goals of science, and there is a diversity of them. Methodological
pluralism is, therefore, characterized by the pursuit of what I
call multi-dimensional explanation. This is explanation in terms of
efficient causes, but also final causes, non-material causes,
"language-oriented notions such as meaning, intentionality,
interpretation and understanding."[30] Thus, methodological
pluralism is associated with methodological forms of teleonomism,
mentism, theism and intentionalism and with a hermeneutical view of

Methodological pluralism is intended to restore intelligibility to
its rightful place among the goals of scientists. Intelligibility
and control are equally valid objectives of science. However,
methodological materialism in conjunction with the beliefs
mentioned above is transformed from a limited and provisional
methodology to obtain control over material reality into an
imperialistic ideology in which intelligibility has been lost sight
of. There is a crisis of intelligibility when the fundamentals of
equilibrium and polymer chemistry are ignored in a research program
that attempts to reconstruct the course of molecular evolution[31]
or when the conjunction of evolutionary biology and ideological
materialism is self-referentially incoherent.[32] Science ought
not to pursue the domination of selected ideologies such as
materialism or physicalism. Intelligibility depends on a broad
context that includes observation, methodological, metaphysical and
religious beliefs. Methodological pluralism makes room for a
potential role in science of this entire context. For instance, a
theist evaluates intelligibility in light of beliefs about created
causes both material and non-material as well as a non-created
cause (God). Christians have reasons to refrain from references to
God's action in explanations aiming at the control of material
reality; God's action is an uncontrollable factor and the planning
that goes into it is unknown. When intelligibility is the goal,
however, Christians have every reason to include God's action in
their understanding of material reality both as part of
explanations and as background against which explanations are

An empirical argument for methodological pluralism is provided by
downward causation. For instance, a biological cause acting on a
physical phenomenon is required to explain why the production of
optically active amino acids in organisms results in the L-form
only while outside an organism the L- and D-form occur with equal
frequency.[33] This phenomenon is an entirely material one
explicable with efficient causation, but already there is a need
for a plurality of different causes.

Many phenomena cannot be fully explained in terms of material
efficient causes. A reference to purpose, the will and the human
mind makes the movement of an arm intelligible.[34] Likewise, a
non-material cause acting on bodily phenomena is required to
explain the changes in heart rate, blood pressure, tone of voice
etc., that occur in association with multiple personality disorder
in humans. However, including non-material created causes in
science reduces predictability. Explaining an asthma attack in
terms of a person's psychological and mental state reduces
predictability depending on the complexity of the causal picture.
However, this reduction is also encountered in purely material
phenomena with a complex causal picture such as the weather.
Scientists may learn to manipulate the causes both material and
non-material in a controlled way. That is why non-material causes
belong in science.

No one will ever be able to manipulate God's action in the world.
Also, explaining an earthquake in terms of God's will does not make
it predictable because we do not know God's will in this
respect.[35] This is why "no hypothesis according to which God has
done this or that can qualify as a scientific hypothesis"[36] even
though this requirement is demanded only by the ideal of prediction
and not, for instance, by logic. However, reference to God's will
can make things intelligible for theists. Theists can explain why
there is something rather than nothing, why natural phenomena
display regularities, why humans can comprehend them[37] and why
naturalistic epistemology can produce reliable knowledge.[38]
Therefore, multi-dimensional explanation includes theological
explanation. I suggest that the givens of science need a
theological explanation of the kind that refers to God's
originating action in the world. To methodologically exclude any
reference to such action[39], is precisely what creates the
illusion of an unbroken chain of material causation from matter to
man, when there may be none. Methodological pluralism is intended
to protect methodological theism from facile references to God's

Multi-dimensional explanation employs explanations of different
type simultaneously. Including the non-material in science is
needed because no one is immune from holding beliefs that block
revision of methodological materialism. For instance, metaphysical
naturalism and evolution as belief context for methodological
materialism render the latter false and irrational.[40] The
combination of methodological materialism and the universal
validity of science is self-contradictory. Methodological
pluralism is intended to protect methodological materialism from
degenerating into a self-destructive ideological agenda by
combining it with other methodological attitudes issuing from a
wider context of metaphysical and religious beliefs.


Intelligibility is normally evaluated in light of, among others,
observation as well as methodological, religious and metaphysical
beliefs. Since intelligibility is a legitimate goal of science so
is the role of these beliefs. My final recommendation is to
acknowledge the legitimacy of including such beliefs in evaluating
theories and interpretations of experience. This acknowledges the
failure of attempts to delimit science from non-science as well as
the underdetermination of scientific theories by observation and
logic. Once the role of beliefs in science is out in the open, it
will be easier to understand what an appropriate role for them
would be.

This position does not end up in relativism. According to
relativism, if you cannot get at truth by reason alone, then you
cannot get at truth at all. This attitude assumes that reason is
the only way to truth with rationalists and objectivists believing
it works and relativists it doesn't. The "third alternative" I
have presented denies their common assumption and holds that truth
can be known holistically. Together with observation and reason,
trust and creative imagination, belief plays a necessary role on
the way to truth. Explanations and theories in science are
relative in the sense that they are related to various beliefs,
observations, and theories. This does not make public agreement
impossible, only harder to achieve. For instance, in accounting
for the fine-tuning of cosmological constants or the presence of
information-carrying molecules, the smallest common denominator
scientists with different belief backgrounds can have is the
hypothesis that an intelligence is responsible. Agreement about
whether this intelligence is a non-material created intelligence or
God is possible, but the road that leads there requires far more
than rational argument.

My sincere appreciation goes to Alvin Plantinga and Tom Settle for
helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper, but they bear
no responsibility for the end product.


[1] Methodological materialism entails methodological atheism
(Plantinga, 1991: 27).
[2] Plantinga, 1993: 194-237.
[3] Bunge, 1959: 52.
[4] Plantinga (1996) "Methodological Naturalism?" In: Facets of
Faith and Science. Volume I. J.M. van der Meer (Editor).
The Pascal Centre for Advanced Studies in Faith and Science /
The University Press of America. Lanham.
[5] The idea of fruitful error was introduced by Kant and
elaborated by Vaihinger. He develops the role of fiction as
a guide in the acquisition of knowledge. Vaihinger believes
that "The materialistic conception of the world is a necessary
and useful fiction, but it is false as soon as it is taken for
an hypothesis" (199). Natural science "proceeds as if the
external world did assuredly exist outside ourselves and as if
even without a subject , things were as they appear." (200).
For instance, the existence of God is a useful fiction because
it helps us to think of the world as ordered which stimulated
the discovery of this order (xlvii).
[6] Vaihinger, 1924: xlii.
[7] Vaihinger, 1924: 110.
[8] I am holding the cognitive view of metaphor as developed by
Hesse (1988), Nersessian (1988, 1992) and Soskice (1985).
[9] Hesse (1985:108) observes that "Those (like philosophers)
whose business is logic and argument are too prone to neglect
the fact that there can be very important tendencies and
plausibilities among ideas which are less than strict
entailment, but which are highly influential upon thought, and
are not simply exorcized by pointing out that they are not
logically conclusive. We should look very carefully at such
tendencies to see how far we ought to be pushed for good
reasons to accept them, and how far we ought to resist them."
[10] The arguments have been summarized by Brown, 1977: Ch. 5. See
also Laudan (1988).
[11] For reviews see: Funkenstein (1986), Lindberg and Numbers
(1986), Brooke (1991) and Van der Meer (1996).
[12] Very briefly, I believe such relations can exist between
religion and science and can be explained by holding that
theories are composite artefacts composed of categorically
different entities which allow for connections other than
logical ones. I call this the composite theory of theory.
For the capacity of semantic relations to connect religion and
science, see van der Meer (1995).
[13] Polanyi, 1962: 297.
[14] Fodor (1980) and Miller (1987) use the term in the
prescriptive sense.
[15] This is Polanyi's agnostic doubt (1962: 272-279).
[16] Interactionists may include theists and atheists. Atheists
were prominent among Victorian intelligentsia who opposed
materialism on the ground that it could not express all valid
human experiences and ideals (Turner, 1974: 1-2, 22-23).
[17] Such as presented by Vollmert, 1983 and Thaxton et al., 1984.
[18] Plantinga, 1993: 211-215.
[19] Toulmin and Goodfield, 1961: 257; Dampier, 1971: 131.
[20] Strijbos (1988) provides an extensive and insightful analysis
of the dehumanizing effects of a technological approach to
health care.
[21] Plantinga, 1993: 211-215, shows that metaphysical naturalism
forces anti-realism towards the idea of proper function.
[22] Tipler, 1995:3.
[23] Plantinga (1996) "Methodological Naturalism?" In: Facets of
Faith and Science. Volume I. J.M. van der Meer (Editor).
The Pascal Centre for Advanced Studies in Faith and Science /
The University Press of America. Lanham.
[24] Berger, 1969: 100, 179-185. His diagnosis of the effect of
methodological atheism in the sociology of religion is
telling: "Put simply, methodologically, in terms of theology
as a disembodied universe of discourse, sociology may be
looked on as quite 'harmless' - existentially, in terms of the
theologian as a living person with a social location and a
social biography, sociology can be a very dangerous business
indeed." (182)
[25] Van Till, 1986: 97-108; Van Till et al., 1988: Ch. 1., 1990:
[26] For reviews see: Funkenstein (1986), Lindberg and Numbers
(1986), Brooke (1991) and Van der Meer (1996).
[27] Van der Meer (1995).
[28] Professor George Marsden (1987) has argued that what is known
as the Kuyperian approach to the relation between Christianity
and culture is the most promising candidate for christian
scholarship because of its conviction that religious beliefs
make a difference in science.
[29] Methodological pluralism is associated with a multi-level
(hierarchical) view of reality which is required to account
for complex phenomena. A systematic presentation of this
ontology is beyond the scope of this paper. See Van der Meer
(1989) for a semi-popular rendition.
[30] Von Wright, 1971: 30.
[31] Vollmert, 1983; Thaxton et al., 1984.
[32] Plantinga, 1993: 216-237.
[33] For a detailed discussion of this example, see van der Meer
[34] I focus on effects of mind on body because I consider effects
of mind on matter too speculative.
[35] Such explanations also do not explain anything, because they
can explain everything, but this is not unique to God's
[36] Plantinga 1991: 27.
[37] Theists can also interpret the intelligent causes employed by
some physicists in explanations of the fine-tuning of physical
constants and by some biologists in explanations of D.N.A.
encoded information and of effects of mind on body. Such
phenomena are of course open to non-theistic interpretations
such as in terms of a non-material superintelligence.
[38] Plantinga, 1993: 211.
[39] As professor Stek recommends (Stek, 1990: 261).
[40] Plantinga, 1993: 194-237.


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Dr. Jitse M. van der Meer
Professor of Biology (905)648-2131
Director Pascal Centre fax: (905)648-2134
Redeemer College
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