Friday, December 21, 2007

Tweaking methodological naturalism

C Michael Patton on Parchment and Pen has an excellent post going about faith and science, and more particularly on methodological naturalism, which Patton defines as "a method of 'doing' science that does not assume the presence of supernatural phenomenon." Patton goes on to outline how the assumpution of methodological naturalism does not make an atheist of every scientist. Rather, it means that science as a discipline must frame its subject of study, and that the most helpful way of doing so is to bracket the supernatural. Science must, by definition, choose its instruments with a view toward that which is examined--in this case, the material world. Patton provides the example of a doctor who is asked to diagnose a man suffering from chest pain. "The doctor," he writes

does not attribute this chest pain to demon possession even though his worldview may allow for such. He or she must proceed by attempting to understand the ailment naturalistically. This does not mean the doctor does not believe in demon possession, it means that he is under obligation by his field of study to try to understand the problem without regards to the supernatural.

Patton goes on to link methodological naturalism with the historical/critical hermeneutic, which is a connection worth exploring.

In addition, comments to Pattons blog post also prove developmentally interesting. Beginning with a bit of trivia, they point out that the term "methodological naturalism" was coined by evangelical philosopher Paul DeVries at Wheaton College. They are quick to point out that methodological naturalism doesn't have to bracket God, but, instead, presupposes his general providence. As one commentator says, "God’s general providence indeed results in a creation that is extraordinarily consistent (i.e., God is not capricious) and this enables science to work." This is an important clarification because a purely philosophical naturalism has no way of explaining why the material world is subject to discovery. As Einstin said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible."

Dennis Overbye in his article "Laws of Nature, Source Unknown" in the December 18, 2007, edition of the New York Times explores this very thing. Overbye cites the negative reaction Arizona State University cosmologist Paul Davies received when, in a NYT op-ed, he said that the scientific method presumes faith in an orderly universe. Overbye notes that "there is a kind of chicken-and-egg problem with the universe and its laws. Which 'came' first--the laws or the universe?" In a tradition goes back to Augustine, the orderly lawfulness of the universe was attributed to the general providence of God. But according to Davis, "God got killed off [in the seventeenth century], and the laws just free-floated in a conceptual vacuum but retained their theological properties." Scientists have since kneeled at many fonts looking to justify their faith. Some have become platonists and hurled the laws of the universe into the higher realm of the forms, meaning pure mathematics. Some, responding to the deep randomness of the quantum universe, state the the laws are deep generalities, which will continue to evolve. And some believe that the laws have emerged naturally from primordial chaos in which millions of universes are born and die unknown to each other, each with its own set of physical laws. But, as Overbye says, "The law of no law . . . is still a law." So, in the end scientists are the ones who are "playing their cards as if they can win, as if the universe is indeed comprehensible."

Another qualifier to methodological naturalism is its tendency toward reductionism, limiting the boundary of what is real to the measurable dimensions of res extensa and res cogitans. Dave Sims is the one who makes this comment, and it is so good that I'm just going to reproduce it:

If one assumes reality is reducible to material and efficient causes, it will be impossible to have a discussion about whole or purposeful substances with a scientist, at least where one assumes that the authority of science, so defined, is conterminous with theology. Any kind of detente with MN results in a very one-sided conversation where science always has the upper hand, and the sorts of theology that can engage the conversation are a very truncated group from the beginning. . . . The Christian community needs to be willing to re-examine the metaphysics of Bacon, Descartes, Gallileo, and others who left us with a rationalist/dualist science, and see if we can’t reform Aristotelian science without lopping Aristotle/Thomas’s heads off by ruling out formal and final causes by fiat. Until we can do that, any talk about integration and cooperation with Baconian science (MN) is doomed both philosophically and politically.

Sims puts a qualifier on scientific claims to dictate the borders of what is true. What is true, he says, encompasses a wider field that straightforward methodological naturalism allows. Science needs to adjust its assumptions: enlarging its epitstemological possibilities without distorting what already exists. "There are plenty of alternate metaphysical approaches," writes Sims.

Husserl, Whitehead, Bergson, and even Heidegger in his essay The Question Concerning Technology give good examples of how to approach a critique of Cartesian/Baconian science philosohopically. Hans Jonas’s Phenomenon of Life should also be looked at carefully as a template of how to construct a robust critique of contemporary science.

As Vance, another commentator writes, "much of the problem lies in the fact that we have adopted the Modernistic conclusion that science is the search for the ultimate answers, rather than viewing science for the limited scope in inquiry that it is: the search for the best existing natural answers." Vance goes to on to say that "Science should be viewed as just one source of information in our search for ultimate truth. And while [Christians] believe that this larger search should include the supernatural, we should not force this area of inquiry into 'the study of how the natural works naturally,' which is science."

I can see the point that Sims and Vance are making, but they should also ask whether their own (easy) critique of science in general and methodological naturalism in particular doesn't hide the secret desire to re-enchant the universe. "Priests," wrote Thomas Jefferson, "dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight."

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