Does Methodological Naturalism Presuppose Its Own Conclusion?

Methodological naturalism (MN) is a method whereby all scientific endeavors—-all hypotheses and events—-are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes alone. Believers criticize the use of MN when it comes to the science of origins and their faith as a whole. The charge is that MN in science logically requires the a priori adoption of a naturalistic metaphysics. I've been struggling with how to answer this objection. Here is my latest attempt.

Prior to the scientific revolution MN was largely not something anyone had to argued for, as far as I can tell. Science just proceeded based on it. But as the scientific revolution started to produce the goods in every area it touched, it was noticed as the reason why science works, as opposed to faith based conclusions. So the first thing to say is that science cannot work without it. Everyone should acknowledge this fact, and it is a fact.

It's claimed that MN prohibits supernatural explanations. But not so fast, it doesn't, most emphatically. It doesn't prohibit testing stories in the Bible with the science of archaeology like the Exodus, or the wilderness wanderings in the desert for 40 years, or the Canaanite conquest reported in Judges, nor does it prohibit testing whether there was a census at the time Jesus was born, nor does it prohibit testing the language styles used by the writers of the Bible to see if there are more than one writer for Isaiah, or that 2nd Peter was a forgery. It doesn't prohibit scientific tests on prayer to show there is a supernatural deity, nor does it prohibit scientifically testing so-called prophecies or psychic abilities. In fact MN is the method scientists use to test all of these claims and more. If the results were positive then science based in MN would show us that these claims are true. The problem for believers is that science based in MN has consistently shown all of these claims to be false. Now that's not the problem for MN. It's a problem for faith-based claims. If science based in MN successfully showed these claims to be true then believers would change their tune and crow about it. Because it turned out differently they must find some loophole to attack it.

No one says that MN by itself can tell us everything about the nature and workings of the universe. It is only as reliable as that method works. It seeks natural causes for everything. So it is a limited method. It does not presuppose itself unless someone says it is the only method for understanding reality, for then it excludes other ways of knowing about it. However, with that said there is an important question that need to be addressed. To what degree of probability can we rely upon MN to produce the goods? I say it is overwhelmingly probable, almost virtually certain to do so given its past record.

So where are we? God supposedly created a world that is best explained by a method that looks for natural causes if we want to learn about it. He did that, on their view. That method has gradually jettisoned supernatural explanations by scientifically literate people. And believers find themselves arguing against it, saying it's circular, when it clearly is not. So they are arguing against what their God created in order to believe in him. Don't you find that strange? That their God would put something in place that undermines their faith whereby they must selectively deny it to believe? And what is it they think excludes its grasp? An ancient pre-scientific barbaric superstitious unhistorical set of selected canonized sacred books as they interpret them in today's world? This does not make sense to me and a growing number of scientifically literate people, especially since other mutually exclusive religionists do exactly what Christians do with their sacred texts. Religionists would all agree with Christians against MN but then go on their merry way with their mutually exclusive faiths containing no reliable alternative method to settle their own differences, while having perennial debates within their own houses of faith with no resolution in sight.

When there is a crime do investigators assume a natural cause? Or, do they assume Allah did it? Isn't it more productive to assume a natural cause? And doesn't assuming a natural cause lead to solving crimes? What if we cannot solve that crime? Then what? Should we leap to Allah as the cause? Or, should we simply suspend judgement? Now it might be that Allah did the "crime." The method doesn't preclude that possibility. It's just that with MN we cannot come to that conclusion. So using it might not allow us to solve a supernaturally caused crime. I get this. But if assuming a natural cause cannot help us solve the crime what other method do we have? As far as I can tell faith has no method, solves no crimes, and leads to dead ends. If Yahweh exists and did the "crime" then MN itself doesn't allow us to conclude that he did. Therefore, if Yahweh exists he must convince reasonable people by other means. Here is a list of things he could have done but didn't right here.

Let's say MN largely excludes supernatural explanations. Then by using this method we have gained a massive amount of knowledge. It works. So we should apply that same method outside criminal investigations, science, and history to the Bible itself. Why not? Perhaps there is a better method? We just don't know of one that works so well. What we do know is that faith has no method and has been wrong so many times it makes our heads spin.

So there is nothing about MN that is unjustified. The only reason believers dislike it is because their God did not do other things that would help convince us to believe. The fact is, believers use MN every single day. They do not assume there is a demon behind every tree, like many did during the infamous witch hunt period. Today's Christians are "enlightened Christians", unlike them. Believers today have been brought to accept what the biblical writers did not accept and now they have trouble defending their faith. So they must attack MN when that is the very method they have been brought to accept as an enlightened Christians. They just use it selectively. In every area except those rare areas that conflict with their pre-scientific sacred book they accept it.

Methodological naturalism works so well it's very probable that nature is all there is. How does that presuppose it's own conclusion? We must think exclusively in terms of the probabilities. We may misjudge the probabilities, but we should never go against them when seeking knowledge about the nature and workings of the universe. MN has given us that knowledge. Faith has been wrong so many times it should be obvious it cannot be relied upon to produce any knowledge. Faith adds nothing to our probability calculations.

Lastly, by rejecting MN it can stunt the progress of science. As Randal Rauser wrote in chapter 7 of our co-written book, "God or Godless":
Science can study the universe once it exists, but it can never explain what brought it into existence.
With Randal’s God explanation there is no reason to investigate why the universe exists, since he says science can’t do it. This is the standard theistic response to the unsolved mysteries of the past. Why keep betting on faith to solve them when it has solved nothing so far?