Home > Atheism, Philosophy, Science, Skepticism > Evan Fales On Methodological Naturalism.

Evan Fales On Methodological Naturalism.

In Michael Martin’s edited book: The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, one of the contributors, Evan Fales, discusses physicalism and naturalism – today I want to focus on a type of naturalism he discusses briefly: methodological naturalism.

Fales begins by stating, and this is something you will see in almost any apologetics book, that scientists are often charged with “restricting scientific investigations to natural phenomena” (p.123):

… “scientific creationists” and their fellow anti-Darwinians, the advocates of “intelligent design,” often accuse scientists of assuming naturalism as a metaphysical commitment.. and therefore being committed methodologically to excluding a priori the possibility that supernatural entities play any role in explaining natural phenomena. But scientists don’t simply adopt methodological naturalism a priori. (Fales, Naturalism and Physicalism, p. 123, 2007)

Fales puts forward 3 considerations for rejecting the above and accepting methodological naturalism:

(1) The claim that – although tentative, it is well supported that there are no supernatural causes to be investigated. (p. 123)

(2) The supernatural is in principle beyond scientific investigation. (p.123)

(3) Scientific investigation of the world – including, in particular, any historical study of the past would be rendered impossible by the admission of supernatural interventions in the world. (p. 124)

In defense of (1) Fales states that the defender can point to the long (sordid) history of paranormal claims, that have, upon investigation, turned out to be without merit, or fraudulent:

On this approach, methodological naturalism is not so much fundamentally a methodological commitment as it is a (well-confirmed) finding of science, one that enjoins the rule: always look for natural causes (or explanations) of phenomena, supernatural hypothesis are to be entertained only as  a last resort. (Fales, Naturalism and Physicalism, p. 123, 2007)

Fales states that anyone who employs the above does not exclude the supernatural a priori, but rather uses experience to determine that supernatural hypothesis are unlikely to yield reliable results.

The defender of (2), in which Fales admits is problematic, can state that whatever is proposed as supernatural is to say it exists outside of time and space, or both. If this is the case then: “there is no way to detect such a thing; it escapes objective measurement. (p. 123)

Fales states that it is important we don’t beg the question here:

We should not incautiously presume to know enough about causation to rule out dogmatically the possibility that an agent existing outside space or time (or both) could causally interact with physical matter. (Fales, Naturalism and Physicalism, p. 123, 2007)

We can ask though: suppose we do grant, for the sake of argument, that God does act in the world, how could such actions possibly be identified and scientifically investigated? Fales states that we can, if we choose, be so strident in saying that science should only investigate the “space-time world and natural causes.” (p.124) But that a more sensible approach would be to use science to explain whatever phenomena we uncover and, in particular, to discover the causes of things. This definition – would focus on anything that has causal influence over material things – including any supernatural entities. As Fales mentions, success in causal analysis of the supernatural would give no guarantees of success, as supernatural causes might be elusive, but it is important to note that that is not the same as saying that they can not in principle be discovered. (p.124)

What can fairly be said on this score is that supernaturalistic explanations have, to date, been decidedly arid in articulating causal mechanisms or proposing experimental procedures. (Fales, Naturalism and Physicalism, p. 124, 2007)

Finally, the defender of (3) is arguing that:

… inferences of any kind from known effects to unobserved causes, or known causes to unobserved effects, require that nature behave in orderly ways. So the very possibility of history – and of science generally – assumes natural events are governed by laws without supernatural interference. (Fales, Naturalism and Physicalism, p. 124, 2007)

Fales states that from this we can assume, with reason, as a methodological principle, the proposition that “nature, at least so far as it can properly be brought within the purview of scientific investigation, is free of supernatural causes.” (p.124)

A possible objection to this, Fales states, could be that there is no necessary link between a supernatural agents intervention and science being able to detect the world. God could simply intervene on rare or significant occasions in ways that do not perturb the natural order, in a way that does not incapacitate our scientific understand of nature. We need not assume the behaviours of agents are erratic or inexplicable.

Fales says however that:

This objection does not perhaps fully appreciate the force of the difficulty. The odd miracle might indeed not so disrupt the order of nature as to vitiate scientific efforts to understand the world. But if miracles are possible, how can we know that they occur only sparsely, and with limited effects on the course of nature.  Must not the evidence for such a claim itself presuppose the validity of scientific methods – and hence presuppose that the world is not chaotically miracle infested? (Fales, Naturalism and Physicalism, p. 124, 2007)

Fales concludes it is the admission that miracles occur that moves us to a deep skepticism about our inductive inferences over and above those already discovered by philosophers.

Conclusion

While not addressing every possible objection raised against methodological naturalism ,we see at least prima facie evidence of its reliablity, methodology and worth. I leave it for you to decide where you stand in accepting it.

Reference

Fales E. (2007). ‘Naturalism and Physicalism‘, in M Martin,  The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. New York, New York. Cambridge University Press. Pp. 123, 124.

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