Christians attacking methodological naturalism…

The resounding failure of Christians in attacking science head-on, on the basis of the evidence, has seen the modern re-emergence of the Christian anti-intellectual mindset, where evidence is no longer relevant and the goal is simply to destroy logical thought to replace it with religious beliefs.

Presuppositionalism, which I’ve written about many times on this blog, is an example of how this sort of apologetics has become prominent. In presuppositionalism, the goal is not to prove that Christian beliefs have any sort of evidence backing them, but rather to sap the atheist’s epistemic confidence and bank on those feelings to present the Christian myth with bravado as the “only” solution. It’s basically intellectual bullying, and intellectual bullying is always at least partially nihilistic; to counter evidence with bullying is a frank denial of the existence of truth.

Carried with the war on evolution and the Christians’ repeated defeats in that war has come a new twist on this old anti-intellectual mindset: attacking methodological naturalism. Methodological naturalism is a label used to designate epistemic methods, like science, which only admit naturalistic evidence, and naturalistic answers to the questions that evidence poses. It does not consider anything that is not naturalistic.

This of course begs the question, what is naturalistic? What is naturalistic is what is perceived by our senses (that is to say, the naturalistic is what we observe empirically). So the term “methodological naturalism” basically means that it’s a method which only considers what we can observe.

I imagine some Christians might object to that definition. After all, many claim to perceive God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit. However, they are hard-pressed to explain exactly what they mean by “perceive.” When I say “I perceive a tree,” I can explain what I mean in terms of form (I see a tall brown roughly cylindrical shape from which come smaller slender brown shapes with flat green shapes at their ends), conversationally (I went to such-and-such place, and at such-and-such specific location there was an oak tree), and semantically (a tree is a plant having a permanently woody main stem or trunk, ordinarily growing to a considerable height, and usually developing branches at some distance from the ground).

It is impossible for Christians to do this regarding God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit. They cannot define these things because they are supernatural, that is to say, defined negatively (more on this in a bit). They cannot tell us how to perceive these things, because their perception was a personal experience. They cannot explain the form of their perception because it uses no senses that we know of.

This, therefore, leads people who have no such experiences, or who had them in the past but have stopped believing in the religious rationalizations for them, to reject belief in God.

The natural Christian reply is to try to undermine the senses. This is a sadly misguided course of action, because it is a form of what I call Cutting Off Your Own Head fallacy: basically, attacking a premise which you need in order to make your own argument. The Christian needs his own senses in order to read and understand the Bible, talk to other believers and support his understanding, etc. So to claim that our senses are fallible and therefore unreliable means that belief in Christianity is unreliable as well (this argument applies to anyone who denies the efficacy of the senses, of course, not just Christians).

The more subtle way for Christians to operate is to attack methodological naturalism as an exclusive epistemic strategy. This bypasses the issue of the validity of the senses, because said validity is not put into question (at least not in this early stage). Rather, it is the refusal to consider supernatural explanations which is attacked. People who adopt such an attitude are called close-minded and limited by “the human senses” or some similar slur term. The following questions received by Brian Lynchehaun of The Crommunist Manifesto illustrate this strategy:

“Can one expect human logic to understand the supernatural realm as easily as it does the natural realm?”
“Are you saying that you reject the existence of the supernatural because people around you can’t agree on the exact nature of God, or of the Creative miracles?”
“My fear, for those who choose that route, is that due to the acceptance of methodological naturalism as the defining limitation to science (defining only what can be proven from within nature itself), those that limit themselves in this way and trust that nature itself is “all there is”, will never have the chance to find out if the supernatural actually exists.”
“Does methodological naturalism include or exclude God?”

At first glance, these may all seem like separate questions and issues, but they are in fact the same exact argument expressed in four different ways, although some are better than others. The first, for instance, most clearly commits the Cutting Off Your Own Head fallacy. If “human logic” is inadequate in understanding the supernatural, then it is inadequate for the Christian as well, and eir argument collapses. One may posit that some divine inspiration leads the Christian to the truth, but having portrayed “human logic” as inadequate to understand the supernatural, we cannot then portray “human logic” as being able to understand supernatural inspiration, either.

Basically, the argument here is “you’re too close-minded to admit that the supernatural exists.” In order to understand why this is nonsense, you first have to understand what “supernatural” really means. As Lynchehaun points out in his own response, the term “supernatural” is defined as that which we cannot explain naturalistically. It is not a metaphysical term, it does not describe a substance (like we could define matter), but it is rather an epistemic term, as it describes the fact that we don’t know something.

Let me give a simple example here. If I say “God spoke to Moses through the Burning Bush,” then what I am saying is that no naturalistic explanation can be applied to the situation. Obviously, if the Moses story is a myth, if Moses lied, if the Burning Bush is an actual biological phenomenon, if Moses heard mental voices, or if any other naturalistic explanation obtained, we could not say “God spoke to Moses.” Because God is “supernatural,” it can only be inferred by the absence of naturalistic explanations.

Unfortunately, such an inference is logically impossible, because we can never know that there’s no possible naturalistic explanation. Suppose we somehow eliminate all the naturalistic explanations I gave for the Burning Bush; it’s still entirely possible that some law of nature has not been yet discovered that can explain the Burning Bush. That is to say, we could not eliminate naturalistic explanations unless we know every law of nature. But this is, to put it mildly, not the case. That means we can never infer a supernatural explanation (the same, by the way, is true of the paranormal: anything that can be explained naturalistically cannot be paranormal by definition, the only difference being that the paranormal is not considered religious).

I imagine Christians might pop up at this point and say “but you don’t KNOW that such a new law of nature exists, you just have faith that it does.” But I am not positing that such a law exists. Remember that to infer the supernatural explanation, we must show an absence of naturalistic explanations, not just that the naturalistic explanation is not known. In our scenario, I would concede that I do not know the naturalistic explanation, but not that there is no such explanation. The former is a statement of knowledge, the latter is a statement of fact.

Suppose I do not know where my cat is, and someone tells me “the cat is on the table.” I think this rather unlikely, since the cat is seldom on any table at all, but it’s possible. I don’t know whether the cat is on the table, but I do know that the cat is located somewhere. Therefore I must assume that some statement about the cat’s location is valid, whether I know that statement or not. If I go to the table and fail to see the cat, then the cat must be somewhere else. I do not jump to the conclusion that the cat is dead.

I hope the analogy is obvious. Christians are people who jump to any gap in our knowledge to argue that it must prove the existence of the supernatural (“the cat is not on the table? then he must be dead!”). Scientists are people who simply continue to look for the cat (“we have conclusively proven that the cat is not on the table; however, he might be on the mat, on a chair, on the bed, etc”).

A Christian may also reply that this plays right into his argument that knowledge of God’s existence may be somewhere in the universe and we simply haven’t found it yet. But these are two completely different cases. If God existed, its existence would be as obvious as the existence of the Sun or the sky. But the naturalistic explanation for something like the Burning Bush is much more obscure, especially if the experience itself cannot be studied or reproduced; in the latter case, it may be downright impossible to conclude with any certainty that any naturalistic explanation we give was the correct one at that time and place, although we can make educated guesses.

In short, when we talk about the effect of the supernatural on our world, we are talking about miracles (like the creation of the universe, the Burning Bush, the birth and resurrection of Jesus, the final judgment, etc). But where miracles are concerned, there are two possibilities: either they happen in accordance with natural law, or they break natural law. If the former, then they cannot be distinguished from events with naturalistic causes, and there is no reason whatsoever for us to assume some supernatural cause. If the latter, then we fall again to the case discussed previously, where it is impossible to discount all naturalistic explanations.

So we fall to the natural end point, which is the question, what would it take for a supernatural explanation to be rationally pursued? The apparent answer is that, as long as we do not know all possible natural laws, nothing could possibly do this. But there is probably no way for us to know that we know all natural laws. Therefore it is probably impossible for a supernatural explanation to be rationally pursued, and methodological supernaturalism is probably prima facie invalid (if not actually invalid).

Christians are unlikely to be moved by this line of reasoning, because they “know” God exists somewhere behind the scenes and is moving the world. However, we have to point out to them that this belief has nothing to do with any logic, agreements on definitions, finding out anything, or philosophical stances (to use the criteria listed in the questions I quoted). Rather, it has to do only with faith, that is to say, actively shared inter-subjective beliefs. Their attacks on methodological naturalism merely serve to hide that fact and pretend that it is the atheist who is missing the boat.

In fact, it is the Christian who is being close-minded, not the atheist. The atheist is always open to new discoveries, but the Christian has already decided that, if we don’t have any naturalistic explanation now, then there cannot be any naturalistic explanation and we must therefore jump to the conclusion that God did it.

The confusion lies in the mental association of “that’s not all there is” with some kind of ontological increase, that by including the “supernatural” in our universe, we expand our perspective as well. But as I pointed out, the “supernatural” is an epistemic concept; when we “include God,” we are assuming that methodological naturalism has nothing more to add, and we add nothing else in return. Fundamentally, the “supernatural” can be defined as a prejudice against discovery; it is a handicap to science and reason in the same way that, for instance, including concepts of racial superiority and inferiority in our worldview is a handicap to the way we deal with each other.

I “reject the existence of the supernatural” because I see no reason to reject the possibility of naturalistic explanations. Now, I do believe that there are probably limits to science, that is to say, that humans may not be intelligent enough to understand everything there is to understand about the universe (we’re already struggling mightily with quantum mechanics).

But this is not particularly problematic. Certainly this means there are some laws of nature we would never know about, but since we already know what they are, they are not “supernatural” in that sense. Obviously God is not a law of nature, because to pin God down to a specific nature would be to deny the fact that God is defined as an absence of any substance or any nature (except that of being goodly, which is incomprehensible outside of a human context). In our ignorance, there does not lie God.

Since I said there are probably limits to scientific understanding, my materialist belief does not stem from the standard overconfidence in science exhibited by the typical atheist who believes that science is the only answer to everything, as Christians commonly assume. In fact, this is ahistorical: there were plenty of explicit atheists before the existence of science as a discipline, including amongst the Ancient Greeks and Romans. For instance, in his Laws, Plato reports the existence of many thinkers in Athens who argued against the existence of the gods, and we know that many Sophists living at the time advocated naturalism as an explanation for religion. To logically link atheism to science is therefore fallacious.

As I’ve pointed out before, being an atheist doesn’t mean you claim to have all the answers, any more than being a Christian means you claim to have all the answers. One does not need intricate knowledge of biology, cosmology or Middle Eastern history to hold to some position on the existence or non-existence of the “supernatural.” Unlike these scientific disciplines, we can examine the evidence for and against the “supernatural” all around us. And the positive case looks pretty slim.

4 thoughts on “Christians attacking methodological naturalism…

  1. sbt42 October 3, 2012 at 13:00

    I’m really happy with this explanation. Just one question, for clarification’s sake: what can one do in a situation where someone suggests that supernatural phenomena can be manifested in a naturalistic way? There are plenty of folks who say otherworldly powers affect the natural world. Simply saying that “supernatural things cannot affect the natural world” isn’t convincing, as the Christian (or other) will demand proof of this.

    Any suggestions in this area?

    • Francois Tremblay October 3, 2012 at 14:30

      I’m not sure what you mean exactly. By definition any supernatural effect we assume exists, is manifested in a naturalistic way. Otherwise there wouldn’t even be a phenomenon to explain.

  2. sbt42 October 3, 2012 at 19:41

    Goofy things like toast burned in the shape of Jesus or a saint or something are easily discounted. But things like stigmata or stuff like that seem to be lauded as direct evidence of divine intervention, simply because it’s a physical manifestation of such intervention and there’s no rational/naturalistic explanation, at least at the outset.

    Then there’s this stuff about the miracles that took place in the Six Days War, for another infamous example:
    http://www.chabad.org/multimedia/timeline_cdo/aid/525335/jewish/War-Begins.htm

    Jewish historians cite on this website infer (rather strongly and directly) that because of the spiritually-charged acts of goodness around the world performed by orthodox Jews, they were rewarded with several miracles that turned the tide of the war in their favour.

    How can we combat such unshaking belief in the otherworldly? It’s quite a coincidence to brush off sometimes. It’s almost like it’s not worth going into a debate with someone who’s been convinced.

    • Francois Tremblay October 3, 2012 at 19:47

      How can we shake belief in the otherworldly? Well, first you gotta understand that it’s part of a supernaturalist worldview. You can’t argue specific points because they’ll just go back to the fundamental beliefs (for one thing, even if you show X could have happened naturally, they can still coherently believe that it really happened supernaturally anyway). What you gotta point out is the contradiction between the way they view mundane events and the way they view these “miracles.” It will not convince them, but it will introduce some cognitive dissonance.

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