Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Benign methodological naturalism?

A passage from a paper I wrote on miracles suggest tome a way in which methodological naturalism can be formulated such that it can avoid the charge of dogmatism and still do some serious work. I wrote:

.....Someone who postulates a miraculous account of something may try to claim that by admitting a miracle in the background, we render a number of natural events more open to naturalistic explanation. If we find that someone refuses to recant his faith when threatened with death by torture, this occurrence is a natural event. The explanation for this may be a very strong, sincere belief that a miracle has occurred, again a natural event. But it may be that the least "forced" explanation for this sincere belief is that a miracle did occur.

It is a mistake to think that just because a theory involves commitment to the supernatural, that the supernatural content is all that there is to the theory. A supernaturalist theory can have a naturalistic "trail" of evidence for which can be found or not found. Those who believe that Jesus was raised from the dead believe that Jesus's body will not be found. If it is found (or if it had been found in the first century), traditional Christian belief will be faced with a devastating disconfirmation. If believers choose (or had chosen) to maintain their belief somehow in the face of this kind of counterevidence, this would perhaps show their irrationality, but would not show the untestability of their belief per se.

My modest proposal is this. In this essay I am suggesting that the apologist for the miraculous cmay suggest that in the case of certain chains of events postulating miracles will give us more, not fewer, naturalistic explanations. I think that if we assume that Jesus rose from the dead, we can provide better and more accurate naturalistic explanations than if we deny it. You may that I'm nuts about this; nevertheless it suggests a test that explanations that violate strict methodological naturalism must pass in order to be scientific.

BMN (Benign methodolgical naturalism) says this: In science, naturalistic explanations are the coin of the realm. We are in the business of coming up with as many and as accurate of naturalistic explanations as we possibly can find. Does this mean that all explanations have to be naturalistic? No, but if you are going to use a non-naturalistic explanation, it has to be helpful in producing the kinds of naturalistic explanations we're going after in science.

Could this suggestion help to improve the ID debate?


Jason said...

Well, _I_ for one am having some problems with this... {g}

For one thing, it seems to involve using a definition for naturalism that I'm completely unaware of; and one that looks likely to conflict heavily with other uses I do know about, and which I have some coherent understandings of.

If I focus my study on finding and understanding interrelations of the natural system, then by default I am restricting my attention to those interrelations. I can do this whether the system in question is the only existant system or not; while the person who believes that Nature is the only existant system will certainly be making the same studies, too. Indeed, if he's right, those are the only possible studies that _can_ be made: all systematic studies will be 'naturalistic', if philosophical naturalism is true. But even if philosophical naturalism isn't true, I can still employ a restriction of study by method--and that will be distinctively methodological naturalism.

This use would even still hold under the popular use of 'naturalism' to mean 'naturalistic atheism'--so long as I agree (which I do) that the natural system is non-sentient in its behaviors.

But what kind of use of naturalism are you entailing here? If I call a 'scientia' methodological _naturalism_, I'm doing so in virtue of its (limited) resemblence to philosophical naturalism.

How does the _method_, in other words, of explicitly including a supernatural factor in the study, resemble _naturalism_ (which by philosophical necessity must restrict study to natural factors)?

Maybe a related question would be: what is 'naturalistic' supposed to mean in this proposal?


Victor Reppert said...

The "naturalism" here is simply a matter of understanding the goal of science as not merely seeking true explanations, but one of getting as many true naturalistic explanations as possible. If someone were to present an ID explanation, it seems as if one response is to say "Even if that's true, we're science here. It's our job to look for naturalistic explanations, and all you're telling us to do is to stop looking for those and to accept a supernatural explanation instead. (That's assuming we know how to define those words). My suggestion is that the IDer might be worth listening to if he could say "OK suppose I told you that by buying a 'supernatural' account of ths phenomenon, we can amplify our ability to produce naturalistic explanations. Then how much would you pay?" That's the idea.

Jason said...

{{The "naturalism" here is simply a matter of understanding the goal of science as not merely seeking true explanations, but one of getting as many true naturalistic explanations as possible.}

Okay... and a true _naturalistic_ explanation would be...? (in distinctive comparison to a supernaturalistic explanation?)