• In defence of Methodological Naturalism

    I am having a debate elsewhere with a fellow Tippling Philosopher and just rushed out this response. Might as well double it up here. He is arguing that science might not have the answer, that a supernatural explanation should not be ruled out. He stated:

    Then, there you go again JP with your “there is shed loads of (presumably scientific) research” to back up your argument in a debate about the status of scientific research. This isn’t playing fair as it assumes the outcome before the debate begins. You seem incapable of putting science under scrutiny as, for you, it is a given that embraces all in the universe. Unfortunately the debate is asking “Does science embrace all in the universe?” In other words what is the status of scientism? So when you say “This is given in science” what if one does not consider oneself to be entirely “in science”? It kind of stymies the debate before you get started. I certainly don’t consider all of what I am to be “in science” and would hope for more than an – Oh yes you are/Oh no I’m not – debate…

    I’m sure you can see what I’m saying.

    The word “explanations” is also interesting as it implies a scientific explanation when, again, the debate is about whether what we are is entirely “explicable” or that we are in a position to “explain” all scientifically.

    In all of this conclusions are being jumped to before the debate begins.

    Here is what I had to say in reply:

    OK, so this is a position against methodological naturalism (MN). The first question is, what are you doing? I assume you are trying to find out explanationns of how the world round us, including us, works.

    So what tools can we use? Well, MN assumes that natural phenomena are all that we can use to do science, to work out the natural world around us. Why? Well, this is because positing anything else is, by definition, unobservable and untestable. As a result, such claims become mere assertion along the lines of “making **** up”. By this I mean that if you come up with some causal explanation as to why something happens so, and it is supernatural, there is no way of being able to evaluate how reliable that claim is, and it becomes no more probable or improbable than me pulling an idea out of my arse and offering that.

    This does not invalidate your claim a priori. However, if naturalism has an explanation which is equally good in scope and power, then Ockham’s Razor would set preference for the simplest explanation.

    Here are a few good reasons that MN is good:  testability, the use of laws in explanations, fruitfulness, the promotion of agreement and cooperation, and the avoidance of blocked inquiry. Blocked enquiry is important because what using methodological supernaturalism (MS) does is prevent further enquiry from taking place. It’s God of the Gaps, and stops further enquiry.

    As Lawrence Lerner states:

    Methodological naturalism is not a “doctrine” but an essential aspect of the methodology of science, the study of the natural universe. If one believes that natural laws and theories based on them will not suffice to solve the problems attacked by scientists – that supernatural and thus nonscientific principles must be invoked from time to time – then one cannot have the confidence in scientific methodology that is prerequisite to doing science. The spectacular successes over four centuries of science based on methodological naturalism cannot be gainsaid. On the other hand, a scientist who, when stumped, invokes a supernatural cause for a phenomenon he or she is investigating is guaranteed that no scientific understanding of the problem will ensue.

    The question becomes “How can you show that your claims are reliable or true?”

    Some arguments, which I have mentioned before, include Lowder’s Argument from the History of Science. As Richard Carrier states:

    The cause of lightning was once thought to be God’s wrath, but turned out to be the unintelligent outcome of mindless natural forces. We once thought an intelligent being must have arranged and maintained the amazingly ordered motions of the solar system, but now we know it’s all the inevitable outcome of mindless natural forces. Disease was once thought to be the mischief of supernatural demons, but now we know that tiny, unintelligent organisms are the cause, which reproduce and infect us according to mindless natural forces. In case after case, without exception, the trend has been to find that purely natural causes underlie any phenomena. Not once has the cause of anything turned out to really be God’s wrath or intelligent meddling, or demonic mischief, or anything supernatural at all. The collective weight of these observations is enormous: supernaturalism has been tested at least a million times and has always lost; naturalism has been tested at least a million times and has always won. A horse that runs a million races and never loses is about to run yet another race with a horse that has lost every single one of the million races it has run. Which horse should we bet on? The answer is obvious.

    Lowder, in the intro to the formulation of his argument, states:

    If there is a single theme unifying the history of science, it is that naturalistic explanations work. The history of science contains numerous examples of naturalistic explanations replacing supernatural ones and no examples of supernatural explanations replacing naturalistic ones. Indeed, naturalistic explanations have been so successful that even most scientific theists concede that supernatural explanations are, in general, implausible, even on the assumption that theism is true. Such explanatory success is antecedently more likely on naturalism–which entails that all supernaturalistic explanations are false–than it is on theism. Thus the history of science is some evidence for naturalism and against theism.

    Read more here.

    So not only does it work, not only have supernaturalistic explanations never supplanted, and for reasons (admittedly only) listed above, but MN has a massively higher prior probability to be true.

    I cannot rule out a supernatural claim; but I can do that no more than you can rule out invisible goblins as an explanation.

    What would evidence look like for your claim? If you cannot have empirical evidence, then what purely rational evidence/argument could you have that is better than a naturalistic one, and that doesn’t look to just be an argument from possibility (this is sometimes called the possibiliter ergo probabiliter fallacy)?


    Category: NaturalismPhilosophy


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

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    • SmilodonsRetreat

      I’ll also add that anything that affects the material universe will leave traces, even if the existence of the thing is outside of the universe.

      Think of an aquarium. To the fish, we might well be supernatural, but we directly affect their universe and leave traces of our work in the tank.

      Such traces ARE examinable by science. But such traces have never been verified.

      While we don’t rule out the existence of the supernatural, experience suggests that there is no such thing… or if there is, then it does not get involved with the material universe, so it might as well not exist for our purposes.

    • kraut2

      “In all of this conclusions are being jumped to before the debate begins.”

      Wrong. It is not a conclusion, it it the null hypothesis at a very deep level: No supernatural act is necessary to explain a phenomenon. That is the basis.

      Any observation that would not be explainable based on MN would falsify the null hypothesis, demanding setting up an alternative hypothesis to test. Nothing in the history of science has made this alternative hypothesis necessary. It is that easy.

    • I like the cartoon. It reminds me of an IQ^2 debate from a few years ago about nuclear power, where an anti-nuclear speaker used as evidence the facts that few new plants get built and that they take a long time to build. Nobody checked him on this point, that the main reason those are true is irrational public fear.

    • im-skeptical

      The significance of Lawrence Lerner’s quotation is overlooked by theists who insist that MN is an ideological position of the scientific community that purposely excludes any supernatural explanation due to a supposed bias against it. I have always insisted that if any supernatural events were observable in our world, they would be subject to scientific investigation (as Smilodon’s Retreat points out). Even if they remain unexplainable, we would at least have to acknowledge that such events occur. As it is, resurrections and other biblical miracles only occur in stories – never in the experience of reliable observers.

    • Travelman

      It seems to me that your sparring partner misses the point. The scientific method, whatever discipline it is applied to, is all we have. It’s not perfect and we refine it constantly, but there is no alternative (as your post illustrates).

      If, by any chance, there is a supernatural alternative somewhere then only the scientific approach will reveal it. For example, the favourite apologist argument is the unlikelihood of life, or even the universe, existing. Okay, not a difficult argument to deal with. What would be compelling, however, would be if something could be shown to exist that could not possibly do so, something that is impossible rather than unlikely. Of course, the existence of said ‘thing’ would have to be investigated and verified by the scientific method, in which case a paradox would exist. I’m not holding my breath.

    • D Rizdek

      Unfortunately the debate is asking “Does science embrace all in the universe?” In other words what is the status of scientism?


      I certainly don’t consider all of what I am to be “in science”

      These tell me two things.

      One, I don’t think the person really understands what science is. Referring to it as scientism suggests he might discount the fact that from the time we’re 6 months old…earlier in fact…we are doing “science.” A baby’s eyes become adjusted to see and she starts to notice these things she’ll eventually learn to call her hands, waving about before her eyes. She notices that when those “hands” bump something, she gets other sensations. She does NOT get those sensations when she sees someone else’s hands bump things and soon learns these are “her” hands and those are “not her” hands. She then maybe realizes a sense of something she later learns to call, “cold.” This sensation goes away when she sees a blanket spread over her or she feels clothes being put on her. As a toddler, she learns about sharp corners and learns not to stand up under a table. Her body gives her sensations she likes or doesn’t like. Etc. It’s all rudimentary, but essential for survival. It is science, this using our senses and our brains like a toddler to figure out how to survive in the world around us. True, through history we’ve figured ways to make the process more rigorous and we’ve made and learned how to use tools that help us measure with more precision, but in the end, it’s the same as the toddler bumping his head or stubbing his toe.

      Two, his comment…”I don’t consider all of what I am to be in science,” while not making as much sense (to me) as I imagine he hoped, seems to be a code for “I have a supernatural part of me and some of me lives in a non-natural state. His that I might call a soul. And this soul somehow detects things my senses/nerves can’t detect.” Once a person believes that, and perhaps even believes what his soul “detects” is more important than what his nerves detect they probably imagine themselves “beyond the ken” of those of us who don’t “know we can know with our soul.” It’s almost as if some people just can’t deal with the fact that we are just animals, born of natural processes and that there isn’t some big permanent guy in the sky who is aware of, and keeps track of. our accomplishments (and our naughty things). There isn’t someone who hands out purposes like candy to a chocoholic i.e. someone addicted to being told what and why with no way to figure out whether it is good or bad other than through the very moral routine given us by the candy distributor.

      Probably the best way is to continue harping on, what exactly do you know and how do you know it? Where is the falsifiability? What assumptions must you make to “make this knowing work?” Where is the ground truthing that is survival related? What happens, really, if what you “know with their soul” is wrong? And don’t succumb to the “well how do you know” because it will then degrade to the:

      But the bottomline is that invariably what he thinks his soul detects and what he thinks he learns about reality via this soul, has nothing to do with survival. It, by definition in my opinion, has got to be about things for which there is no means to know better. In other words it’s unfalsifiable…no one can prove him wrong, EVER.

      For example, this person might know with his soul that his morality is more than something that evolved naturally, i.e. it has to have been given him by a god. That thought has no effect on his survival. No one can prove him wrong, it’s a “survival neutral” meme. He might “know with his soul” that Jesus died on the cross and his sins are forgiven. Again, there are absolutely no survival implications at all in that thought and no one can prove him wrong. He might “know with his soul” that his love for his fellow man comes from God. He might know with his soul that homosexuality is wrong. He might know with his soul that he’s going to spend eternity in heaven and has avoided eternal hell. He might know with his soul that life without a god would be meaningless. Yes, yes, yes and yes, no one can ever prove him wrong. His knowing with his soul is every bit mental masturbation with no end in sight other than making him feel good for a while. And he can imagine he’ll feel good for eternity…no one can prove him wrong until he isn’t aware that he was wrong.*

      Some key elements to learning things using the methods honed by science are:

      Falsifiability…that is ways to know better is an essential element in how to know reality with better and better precision.
      Iteration, do repeated experiments, conducted the same of even slightly differently come out with consistent conclusions?
      Corroboration: do others doing the same or similar experiments find supporting results and/or are any differences explainable through other known processes or other experiments?
      Objective vs subjective: Does it depend on someone’s state of mind when they experiment? Does a physicist have to be “believing” that light has a particle/wave duality to conduct the light table experiment? OR can they be as skeptical as they please and still see the patterns?
      footnote: *In fact, given how many people seem to have NDEs and OBEs associated with “almost” dying, it is very very likely most will have some sort of fleeting “thoughts” as they/we die. But for those who actually DO die, they can’t report back what dreams or hallucinations they had. So these “believers” in free beer tomorrow will probably actually have some sort of illusion that they are meeting Jesus and the apostles, sitting beside god, walking streets of gold, feeling euphoric and contented just like they imagine what they’ll experience and how they’ll feel, and the feeling will be eternal…ie will last as long as time lasts…for them. Won’t that be the kick in the pants for us nay-sayers?

      • Thanks for that. All utterly spot on. I replied by way of summary to him at one point:

        OK, to try and summarise and to pick up on what you have not answered of my points, let me set it out:

        1) I am a naturalist, surmising that it appears that all that exists is natural and adheres to natural laws

        2) I do not a priori reject the supernatural, but do so a posteriori

        3) Naturalistic explanations are wholly sufficient to explain powerfully everything in existence. The two things which possibly have a chink because we do not fully understand them yet are: consciousness, the beginning of the universe (partly because scientific laws break down here)

        4) Positing supernaturalistic explanations here stifles enquiry and posits one unknown to explain another, unnecessarily multiplying entities (Ockham’s Razor)

        5) Supernaturalistic explanations have very low prior probability

        6) Since your small circle intersects with the bigger one, there must be some sort of evidence AND mechanism for this. In consciousness terms, this is called interractionism. This is problematic, both philosophically, and evidentially.

        7) One would expect to find evidence of the interaction, yet one does not

        8) How do you know your supernatural explanation is true? How can it be tested? How do you know your claims are reliable?

        9) Without establishing 8) your claims have no more explanatory value than an invisible green goblin. Since this is ridiculous, then your own hypotheses are equally ridiculous unless shown to be otherwise. But to do this, you must answer 8)

        You are committing the possabiliter ergo probabiliter fallacy.

      • I might quote of the day this.

      • Guy Walker

        Hi D Rizdek. I’m Jp’s sparring partner. Would like to respond to your

        “Invariably, it seems, what one thinks his soul detects and what he thinks he learns about reality via this soul, has nothing to do with survival. It, by definition in my opinion, has got to be about things for which there is no means to know better. In other words it’s unfalsifiable…no one can prove him wrong, EVER.”

        I never use your word “soul”and make no reference to Hell, Heaven, God or religion in this debate. Indeed, I don’t count myself as particularly religious.

        Unfalsifiable is fine for me. “for which there is no means to know better” Is not this latter an admission that there are things beyond the ken of the means we have- i.e. scientific method? That’s my point.

        • D Rizdek

          Sorry, didn’t mean to put words in your posts.

          Is not this latter an admission that there are things beyond the ken of the means we have- i.e. scientific method?

          Let me start differently. Rather than trying to answer your question right off, I’ll ask a few questions.
          What does it mean when you say “in science?”
          What part of “who you are” is not “in science?”
          And those aren’t scare quotes{:

          • Guy Walker

            The answer to your second question is the part of me that isn’t. Science just means knowledge that defines and concludes of course. For me the mathematics of naturalism do not add up to “explain” my inward experience and my encounters with society (other humans) in terms of my witnessing of the moral in me, free will, responsibility(moral and social and legal), identity etc. For me a mathematical unknown is required which I would call”freedom” in many senses, not least the freedom from the over neat and convenient explanations of naturalism. Such explanations seek to define and control experience in a control-freak manner. I would rather refer to Keats’ urge towards “negative capability” whereby one is in the midst of uncertainty without the restless searching after reason than the smart, quick fire intellectual dismissivenss of the standard American Skeptic (pace you – I have no idea of you are American or not).

            • D Rizdek

              But is the basis for you feelings of self, morality, free will and identity physical or not physical?

              It seems the way in which we determine how we feel and even have the sense of “being” is using our senses just like the person who feels a glass to see if it’s hot or cold. Measuring those feelings employ similar approaches as used in formal science. We measure, assess, measure again, develop knowledge, conclude, measure more, assess more, measure again, develop better knowledge and adjust our conclusions about who we are, what we are and how we feel about things.

              Whether someone else can corroborate what we can tell about ourselves in this manner is irrelevant, we are still doing the measuring and we can corroborate with subsequent measuring. It may be subjective to everyone else, but it’s objective to us…our feelings and sensations are real for us.

              The whole, “I think therefore I am,” is about us trying to assess if we are real or not. Me thinking, “I think therefore I am,” does not prove to the outside world that I do think or even “am” in the sense of a sentient entity. My behavior may have all the appearance of it, but objectively no one else can really be sure. But I know, by being able to have that thought, that I am. And having that thought allows me to rationally conclude I am. That is the foundation of science, being rationale about how we interpret what we sense and drawing appropriate conclusions.

            • Guy Walker

              “It seems the way in which we determine how we feel and even have the sense of “being” is using our senses” to quote you from above.

              Interesting to ask if a man without senses would still have a sense of his own existence. To analyse your sentence above grammatically – The first “we” comes before the verb “determine”. In other words we are there before verbs begin to act. Notice that I say we “are ” there using only the verb to be rather than any action of feeling or determining. In this way we pre-exist scientific enquiry and method. Indeed, “we” spawned or invented scientific method and it is “we” who wield it, holding it away from us like a tool. “We” and “us” supplant that tool. The question is where do “we” come from, what region or domain do “we” inhabit? Reminds me of Wordsworth’s “Trailing clouds of glory” “We” is my (and your) consciousness which precedes all and is miraculous.

            • Now that is a great point of discussion which I was having only the other day with some children who were talking about cogito ergo sum and rationalism vs empiricism.

              This is the a priori vs a posteriori or analytic/synthetic philosophical debate.

              There is an argument to say that cogito, far from being a rationalist approach, is actually observation from sense data such that it is indeed an a posteriori conclusion, and not a a priori one.

              There are some who say that there is no such thing as a priori/intuitive knowledge, all is inductive in some way or another.

              I have given an introduction to these ideas here:




              and here:


            • D Rizdek

              Interesting to ask if a man without senses would still have a sense of his own existence.

              I don’t know what you mean…”if a man without senses would still have a sense of his own existence.” Unless grossly debilitated, what man (human) is without senses?

              And if you don’t mind, try to answer: Is the basis for your feelings of self, morality, free will and identity physical or not physical?

            • Guy Walker

              The senseless man was only a thought experiment, of course.

              You press me to a yes or no answer to your physical/non-physical question. The way this question is framed assumes I or any human is equipped or sited in the right place to be able to answer it. It is this assumption that I am unable to join you in. I simply don’t make it because I genuinely don’t think we can. Once made, on whatever basis, right or wrong, your scientific conclusions are entrained and inevitable – I’ll certainly concede that, but will go further to say that this is a form of cheating because the original assumption was unfounded. All I will say is that “feelings of self, morality and identity” exist. I have them.

            • D Rizdek

              Thanks for the effort. I understand.

              In answer to my own question, I think we are all physical…no supernatural component at all.

              I think this not because I have arguments showing it’s impossible or even unlikely that there is a spiritual or “non-physical” component NOR that I’m particularly opposed to thinking in terms of “some other realm/reality” i.e. supernaturalism. I don’t think there is a supernatural element to our being because I have no reason to think that. I try, for the most part I hope, to base beliefs on either some reason I can point to or out of operational necessity. And neither apply in this case.

              So, IMHO, there is nothing in my thinking that is beyond the ken of science in its broadest sense. I think science applies to all of our thinking and all of what we sense. Our bodies, and in fact the bodies of our evolutionary ancestors were doing “science” millions and hundreds of millions of years before we evolved as a bipedal primate species.

              When a cheetah chases an antelope and narrows the distance by putting on a burst of speed at just the right moment or cutting an angle carefully when the antelope dodges is doing science.

              The female wolf that smells her mate on the breeze wafting across the tundra is doing “science.” She is measuring in which direction her mate is and probably approximately how far.

              The soaring owl, using it’s extra sensitive eyes to spot tiny rodents in the thick grass first determines if it is indeed prey and then calculates the correct rate and direction of his dive to catch it is “doing science.”

              The matriarch elephant who has been across the expanse of desert many times and learned (from her mother) the location of the waterhole is doing science when she retraces the path she learned and sniffs the air to reinforce that it’s still there is doing science. She’s remembering and following the path she remembers and is using her sense of smell to find the way.

              The toddler who first has a feeling of frustration when something is taken from her is doing science when she measures her level of frustration and starts crying because it has reached a certain level.

              The person who becomes outraged at an atrocity does so because they “measure” the level of feeling that atrocity creates in their minds, compares the results to personal standards and reacts accordingly.
              In the last thousand years or so, we’ve formalized the scientific process, developed tools to increase our ability to sense smaller and more distant objects and take more careful readings and we’ve documented the value of repeating experiments, third part corroboration and recognizing the value of falsifiability…but in the end, it’s just a fine-tuning of what humans and animals had been doing for millennia.

              While I am sure some of what I consider science is controversial, it is why I claim nothing that goes on in my brain, up to and including consciousness, morality and a sense of personal awareness is “beyond the ken of science.” It isn’t in any way diminishing the significance, mystery and almost miraculous phenomena of consciousness as a emergent quality but it paints science in a much broader, and I hope more useful, context. We should never say, “merely science” or “just science.”

              I agree, each of us knows…or at least knows of…the human inside but I consider our knowledge of that is based on sensations and thoughts, which are as I said earlier all physical. Our consciousness is an emergent quality from the complexity of our brains. That doesn’t it them outside of science even if at this time…or ever…will we be able to hook up a meter to some organism and say with and certainty that “this one has consciousness,” and “that one does not have consciousness.” But the organism itself is the arbiter of who it is and how it perceives itself. IF you perceive yourself as an “I” with an identity, someone with moral thoughts and a will, then you are a person with identity, moral thoughts and a will.

              Finally, we know that a person’s ability to think, to maintain morally, to think of themselves as an person or even be conscious of their existence at all can diminish and even leave entirely due to physical changes/diseases/damage to their brain or nervous system. That is strong evidence that all of those are physically based and that when I die, I’m sorry to conclude all that is “me” will die as well. The only immortality I can hope for is offspring to pass on our memories for a short while, our genes for a longer time and that the atoms of our bodies will probably never be destroyed…or at least not for trillions of years.

            • You put that wonderfully. Thank you.

            • Guy Walker

              I too believe that when we die that’s that. I have no agenda for the afterlife.

              I’m afraid your saying that when a cheetah narrows an angle etc etc it is “doing science” is simply doing violence to language in order to prove a point. Science comes from the Latin sciere – to know – rather like homo sapiens – the knowing man. This nomenclature is used to distinguish us from animals who don’t “know” in this way. “know” means have self-awareness. So we do science. To say animals do is just to project what we do onto them. Using the word in this sense is, therefore, meaningless to me. Keeping the sapiens as meaning self-aware is vital for me. The platform we stand on when we contemplate our physical (natural as in naturalism) being and its mortality is, precisely, the SUPER-natural.

        • GearHedEd

          Someone said above that

          Such traces ARE examinable by science. But such traces have never been verified.

          While we don’t rule out the existence of the supernatural, experience suggests that there is no such thing… or if there is, then it does not get involved with the material universe, so it might as well not exist for our purposes.

          The flip side of that coin is that should “supernatural” explanations ever become amenable to investigation by the methods of science, at that point it will just and proper to remove those “explanations” from the supernatural and place them firmly within the realm of science.

          So not only are supernatural explanations of no relevance, unfalsifiable, and posteriorly discarded, they would cease being supernatural at all if we COULD examine them.

          • SmilodonsRetreat

            I mostly agree with you. After all, what do they call alternative medicine that works? Medicine.

            However, I can think of a condition where a supernatural cause could be possible. A lot of this comes from reading good quality science fiction and fantasy. The best magic systems are ones that are repeatable, even though they are magic.

            Imagine a situation in which prayer worked. Not just any prayer though. Very specific prayers had very specific effects. We might not be able to understand that source of the effect, but we could observe the effect and correlate it with the prayer. Under such a circumstance, I think we could say with confidence that some supernatural cause was real.

            This isn’t intended to be anything more than a discussion topic.

            • GearHedEd

              However, I can think of a condition where a supernatural cause could be possible. A lot of this comes from reading good quality science fiction and fantasy. The best magic systems are ones that are repeatable, even though they are magic.

              I think you may have answered your own objection there. I remind you that you said above,

              Such traces ARE examinable by science. But such traces have never been verified.

              When those traces ARE verified, if they follow some noticeable pattern in a lawful (i.e., without exceptions) manner, you might have a point.

              But I ain’t holding my breath; and neither, I suspect, are you.

            • SmilodonsRetreat

              Nope. ;)

          • Guy Walker

            Trouble is science only explains free will, personhood, morality, identity, responsibility, love, altruism et etc by doing violence to these faculties by strong-arming them into evolutionary theory and so on. Supernaturalism may have its faults but there’s nothing else on offer that leaves them intact.

            • GearHedEd


              I think the biggest problem is that human language isn’t sufficient to deal with the issues you raise, not that “science does violence” to these concepts. I strongly suspect that if you tried to provide a robust definition of any of those terms, you’d be hard pressed to avoid scientific “language”.

              The problem is with your philosophy (it’s insufficient), not science.

            • Guy Walker

              That’s the point. “There are more things in heaven and earth than in your philosophy, Horatio” Of course, when Shakespeare wrote these lines “Philosophy”meant “Natural Philosophy” which meant science.

              You can’t criticise my criticism of science on the basis that it’s not science. It’s the status of science which we are discussing.

              On what are your “strong suspicions” above based, by the way?

              Meh right back at you.

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