Science and the Bible: Intelligent Design, Part 3

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

Copyright 1977 by Sidney Harris, from American Scientist (November-December 1977). (Source)

Last time, I presented three Core Tenets of Intelligent Design. Today I present a final Core Tenet about something called “methodological naturalism.”

(4) Methodological naturalism (MN) is not a legitimate principle to employ, when it comes to understanding the origin(s) of objects exemplifying “specified complexity.” MN arbitrarily restricts science to finding only “natural” causes, when “intelligent” causes may actually be operative in some instances. Furthermore, MN is tantamount to “methodological atheism,” and to insist on it in each and every case leads to ontological (or metaphysical) naturalism—another word for atheism.

This might be the single most important tenet of ID, even more important than (2), that the universe itself, and some of the objects that compose it (both living and nonliving), exhibit abundant evidence of having been “designed.” This is also probably the most controversial of the tenets, and in order to see why, we need to understand the meaning ofmethodological naturalism.

A few years ago, when historian Ronald Numbers tried to determine who coined the term (“Science Without God,” p. 320 note 2), he tentatively credited it to philosopher Paul de Vries of Wheaton College, who had used it in a paper he delivered at an academic conference in 1983 and then published three years later (see the Print References). His article is not available on the internet, but one can get a good sense of his idea and what motivated him from a commentary written by Southern Baptist theologian Hal Poe and his former student Chelsea Mytyk. De Vries stressed that MN is simply a disciplinary method that makes no claims about God’s existence, while “metaphysical naturalism” is a wider philosophical position that denies a transcendent God. Many TEs endorse precisely this distinction, whereas I cannot name any ID author who likes it. This may indeed be the single most fundamental difference between TE and ID.

It’s worth noting in passing, however, that de Vries was not actually the first person to speak about “methodological naturalism.” Several authors since the early twentieth century have used the term, though not always with the same precise meaning. Perhaps the most significant of these was theologian Edgar Brightman, a student of Borden Parker Bowne, whose philosophy of religious “personalism” influenced some important modernist Protestants from the 1920s. Brightman discussed a form of MN on pp. 213-14 of A Philosophy of Religion(1940), a work that influenced Martin Luther King, Jr.

For our purposes, though, I’ll use the definition from an article I wrote with philosopher Robin Collins (who was at the time a Fellow of The Discovery Institute). We defined MN as “the belief that science should explain phenomena only in terms of entities and properties that fall within the category of the natural, such as by natural laws acting either through known causes or by chance.” This is to be distinguished from “ontological naturalism” (or “scientific naturalism”), “the claim that nature is all that there is and hence that there is no supernatural order above nature,” plus “the claim that all objects, processes, truths, and facts about nature fall within the scope of the scientific method.”

Ever since the Pre-Socratic philosophers, scientists and physicians have insisted on giving “natural” explanations for “natural” phenomena, leaving miracles explicitly out of science. Christians have done likewise, going back at least to the high Middle Ages if not earlier. It would be easy to cite many “big name” examples, including Johannes Kepler and Robert Boyle. Readers who want to know more about this are invited to consult the essays by Numbers and Davis & Collins in the appended list of references. I’ve also seen several more examples in an excellent essay on the topic of God and MN by a Christian philosopher (whose name does not appear anywhere in this column), but it would be inappropriate for me to cite it before it’s been published.

This doesn’t mean that no scientists believe in miracles; quite the contrary—probably tens of thousands of American scientists (including many TEs) believe that miracles are possible and that some have happened. They simply don’t believe that miracles can be part of scientific explanations. Even proponents of the YEC view don’t invoke miracles in what they call “operation science” (or “experimental science” or “ordinary science”), reserving them only for “origin science” (or “historical science”). (See my discussion of this distinction in "Galileo and the Garden, Part 2".)

According to mainstream science (including most advocates of TE), scientific explanations are “natural” explanations; they can’t invoke the “supernatural,” i.e., God or the gods or miracles. To some extent, I think that ID cannot entirely escape this problem, as I explained in my previous column. However, another important distinction poses “natural” causes vis-à-vis “intelligent” causes, which are not necessarily “supernatural.” We all know, for example, that skyscrapers don’t come about “naturally,” but they require “intelligent” causes to design them. The real question is whether any “natural” objects—such as galaxies, rocks, trees, or people—also require “intelligent” causes to design them and, if so, whether such causes should be part of any scientific explanations of those objects. Dembski’s idea of “specified complexity” and Behe’s idea of “irreducible complexity” come into play just at this point. ID proponents believe that the scientific toolbox needs to include “design,” an explanatory tool that includes rather than excludes intelligent causation as part of the explanation for how certain things came into existence. Their opponents think the scientific toolbox is large enough as is, without adding “design” to the set.

This is a difference of opinion about the nature of science itself. As a philosophical argument, it’s not likely to be settled by appeals to bacterial appendages or the Cambrian explosion or pseudogenes in humans and chimps. Prior to the Scientific Revolution, “design” was generally accepted or assumed within science. During the Scientific Revolution, a split began to take place, as some scientists argued that invoking design had no scientificbenefit (design might explain why we have something, but now how it works), even though almost all of the early scientists were Christians who fully accepted the reality of a God who had, in fact, designed all of nature. By around the middle of the 19th century—coinciding with Darwin, who sought to make biology look more like physics and astronomy, disciplines in which unbroken “natural laws” already held sway—design largely disappeared from scientific discourse.

NOTE: Contrary to what is sometimes said, natural theology did not disappear after Darwin. Scientists themselves (not just philosophers and theologians) continued to contribute to it, right down to our own day (Polkinghorne is an obvious example). It’s simply that one no longer expects to find “God” or “design” (in the transcendent sense that is clearly meant by ID proponents) in scientific literature.

There are probably several reasons for this development, but I’m not confident that I understand them well enough to talk about it here. For our purposes, it’s enough just to state that ID proponents want to reverse this history. As William Dembski has written, “The scientific picture of the world championed since the Enlightenment is not just wrong but massively wrong.” What is the root problem? “Naturalism is the intellectual pathology of our age. It artificially constricts the life of the mind and shuts down inquiry into the transcendent.” ID, on the other hand, is “the only alternative” to naturalistic evolution, and in order for it to succeed we must “dump methodological naturalism. We need to realize that methodological naturalism is the functional equivalent of a full-blown metaphysical naturalism. Metaphysical naturalism asserts that nature is self-sufficient. Methodological naturalism asks us for the sake of science to pretend that nature is self-sufficient.” (Intelligent Design, pp. 224, 120 and 119, his italics)

Advocates of ID challenge both forms of naturalism at every opportunity. In their view, MN is really nothing but “methodological atheism,” another term that rose to prominence in the debate about ID but also originated earlier. (It might have been introduced by sociologist Peter Berger in the late 1960s.) According to Phillip Johnson, the founder of the ID movement, “Methodological atheism and [the world view of] naturalism are identical.” (Reason in the Balance, note on p. 99, his italics) Thus, some ID thinkers—especially the evangelical philosophers Alvin Plantinga, Steven Meyer, and J. P. Moreland—have made the case for rejecting MN in favor of what Moreland calls “theistic science” or Plantinga calls “Augustinian science”. Another evangelical philosopher, Robert O’Connor, offers a vigorous defense of MN. Many other Christian scholars have weighed in on this; some examples are among the links assembled here. (In passing, let me note that most of these articles were published in the ASA’s journal. This belies the charge sometimes made by ID advocates that the ASA is unfriendly to their position; I think this simply reflects frustration that more ASA members have not found ID sufficiently persuasive.)

So—is MN in fact equivalent to atheism? That’s the rock bottom question here, and there simply is no consensus—neither among Christians nor even among atheists, for that matter. I defended it myself several years ago in a brief exchange with Phillip Johnson, who had written a letter in reply to my review of three ID books, including one of his, which ran as a cover story for Reports of the National Center for Science Education.

Let me give the final word to Loren Wilkinson of Regent College, whose short article, “Does Methodological Naturalism lead to Metaphysical Naturalism?” should not be missed:

“What is at issue, therefore, is not the fact of an elusive and ultimately unattainable scientific description [a complete scientific description of the origin and development of living things], but rather whether the ideal of such a description is incompatible with the loving, personal, creator God revealed to us in Scripture and in Jesus Christ. Yet the ideal that complete understanding of a process excludes God from the picture contradicts our normal Christian practice. We regularly, for example, thank God for our food: rightly recognizing it as God’s provision. Yet we could, if we took the effort, trace the corn or tomato back through many manmade and ‘natural’ processes to its source. The practice of the ‘methodological atheism’ of going regularly to the store (or the garden) to obtain such food does not necessarily produce ‘metaphysical atheism’ in the eater, who still ought to thank God for his provision.” (Darwinism Defeated? pp. 169-70)

It’s your turn now to weigh in. I hope your comments will reveal some familiarity with the books and articles I’ve mentioned, but of course there are so many others that I failed to mention—in which case I hope you will introduce all of us to them. 

Looking Ahead

In the next post, I'll discuss some conclusions we might draw about ID.


References & Credits

Edward B. Davis & Robin Collins, “Scientific Naturalism,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), pp. 322-34.

William A. Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology (InterVarsity Press, 1999.)

Paul de Vries, “Naturalism in the Natural Sciences,” Christian Scholar’s Review 15 (1986): 388-96.

Karl W. Giberson & Donald A. Yerxa, Species of Origins: America’s Search for a Creation Story (Roman & Littlefield, 2002). Readers seeking an accurate, objective description of ID and its reception should start with the (two) relevant chapters in this book, which has been enthusiastically endorsed by historian Ronald Numbers, theologian Alister McGrath, and mathematician William Dembski. It’s not an accident that I recommended it so strongly several months ago.

Phillip E. Johnson, Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law & Education(InterVarsity Press, 1998).

Phillip E. Johnson & Denis O. Lamoureux, eds., Darwinism Defeated? (Regent College Publishing, 1999). . The final chapter by Loren Wilkinson is a gem, but the whole book should be required reading for anyone with a series interest in the topic of this column. In addition to Wilkinson and the editors, contributors include several leading ID advocates (Meyer, Behe, Jonathan Wells, and Michael Denton) and (among others) two prominent critics of ID (Howard Van Till and Keith B. Miller).

Ronald L. Numbers, “Science Without God: Natural Laws and Christian Beliefs,” in When Science and Christianity Meet, ed. David C. Lindberg & Ronald L. Numbers (University of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 265-85.

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.