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Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Methodological Naturalism.

January 11, 2014

Thus far we have looked at some basic terminology regarding naturalism (see here), we have very basically looked at cosmological naturalism (see here), we have looked at some criticisms of cosmological naturalism (that may also apply to naturalism as a whole, for them see here), and we will continue to develop and address those criticisms over the course of the series, but for now, let us look at methodological naturalism and allow Nielsen to briefly define it for us:

2. Methodological naturalism is a methodological commitment to employing inquiry only the norms and methods of inquiry of the empirical sciences together with their logico-mathematical auxiliaries. This the claim is, is the only way we legitimate and securely can fix belief. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 135)

As stated it is the sciences which are used to determine both the categorical terms that are taken as basic, including those terms used to characterize the generic traits of nature, as Nielsen states:

Different naturalists will take different categories to be basic, but they will all agree on the use of the scientific method as the proper way of fixing belief – including belief concerning which categorical terms to adopt. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 145)

Some clarifications before we move on: what exactly is the scientific method in our conversation here today? How can it be the sole fixer of belief, and be reliable enough to establish a worldview around? (The term “fixing belief” has been used, but what does this mean? Essentially it is the method we attempt to attach our beliefs to, for example Pierce would state that the scientific method is the tool that gives us the most access to facts (others such as metaphysics or theology have been used) and thus is the most reliable method for us to fix our beliefs to, for more see here). Hook and Nagel define their use of the scientific method as an empirical one, a “hypopthetico-deductive-inductive method” (p. 169), that as Pierce called “the combined use of induction, deduction and abduction” (p. 169). Hook and Nagel’s project was to shirk extraneous philosophical posturing, to avoid the philosophical urge to look for “first principles” (naturalistic or otherwise), specifically our underlying presuppositions, to them there is “no special philosophic knowledge, or philosophic wisdom that can be otherwise gained or warranted” (p. 169) instead their focus was on the “working truths on the level of practical affairs which are everywhere recognized and which everywhere determine the pattern of reasonable conduct in secular affairs, viz., the effective use of means to achieve ends”.  (Nielsen quoting Hook, p. 159) Nielsen states that these working truths are not necessary ones, but rather more reasonable than their alternatives (whether this has been demonstrated is a source of disagreement), they avoid pedantic discussions (usually held by and between philosophers) about the problems of looking for first principles; in the same way that the results of science can be known without locking down every principle and presupposition of scientific reasoning (we can after all know that obesity is related to dietary and lifestyle factors rather than the position of the sun).  Some examples of possible categories, or working truths determined by the scientific method were mentioned in the last blog (see here), “structure, function, power, act, cause, relation, quantity and event.” (p. 145), these are not factually true or false, so the argument goes, but are “proposals about how to conceptualize things whose use is to be justified pragmatically.” (p. 162)

We are more confident of the warrant of those beliefs … than of any first principles that people might appeal to for their justification. (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2003, p. 160)

From here Hook states:

The choice… of which categories to take as basic in describing a method depends upon the degree to which they render coherent and fruitful what we learn by the use of the method… [it is a non sequitur states Nielsen] to assume that because one asserts that the fundamental categories of description are X, Y, and Z, and that they hold universally, one is therefore asserting that the world cannot be significantly described except in terms of X, Y and Z. (Hook 1961a, 191)  (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2001, p. 169)

To Hook and indeed Nielsen the above is not to say that the world consists of nothing but X, Y and Z, we can also use A,B and C which might not be categorical and still say as nonreductive naturalists: “that the conditions under which any existing thing is significantly describable in terms of A, B and C are such that they are describable in terms of X, Y and Z.” (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2001, p.169) The example he uses to demonstrate this is Nielsen himself moving a pen, we can describe the movements of such in terms of intentional acts, and in terms of bodily movements (without reference to intentional acts).

Let us finish with one last quote from Nielsen who asks if methodological naturalism is a good policy, in reply he states that it comes from a tradition of philosophy which has tried to explain reality via metaphysics, that has tried methods other than the scientific to fix belief, what we “might reasonably take to be true or take for truth or to be warrantedly assertable” (p. 149). Nielsen states that, as the argument goes:

But, at least during the modern period with its extensive pluralism, there never has been with these other methods of fixing belief anything but local and temporary agreement with no progress in the direction of reflective and informed consensus… The scientific method, though through and through fallibalistic, works and carries with it a considerable consensus about its working. So if we want to be reasonable we will stick with the scientific method and leave metaphysics to spirit-seekers and other crazies. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 149)

How well methodological naturalism works as a worldview will be addressed later. Of course this blog is only very short and shallow in its descriptive content, but the discerning reader will see there will be problems with questions of meaning and morality with a scientistic worldview, even if it is nonreductive, these issues and more will be addressed later.


Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

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