33 Methodological naturalism vs. metaphysical naturalism

The parishioners in my adult class were, for the most part, prepared to accept what the character of the Genesis text obviously indicated about its genre and its goals (although this class seems to have been an important factor in one family’s decision to leave the church!). But our discussion left the class with another urgent question. Like me, they’d always been taught that the source of our confidence in the inspiration and authority of the Bible is that long ago everything really happened just as it describes, because it is speaking from a divine eyewitness perspective. But if a greater familiarity with the text discloses that the Bible is not always making historical statements—indeed, in some places cannot be making them—then what is the source of our confidence in it, and specifically in its moral program? Why not read any other collection of edifying tales, and be guided by their cumulative morality instead?

This question was posed to me at this time not only by the members of my adult class, but from another urgent source as well. During the fall of 1995, my wife and I traveled twice to Montreal to visit with her brother Stephen and his family at the hospital where his newborn son was recovering from heart surgery. My conversations with him in the waiting room covered many subjects, especially our hopes and prayers for his son, but we also kept coming back to a topic of lively interest to both of us: our creationist backgrounds and the way we had moved to new understandings of God as Creator as a result of pursuing our respective vocations. It was on this occasion that we agreed on the value of sharing our stories and came up with the idea for this book.

We agreed that it should consist of personal narratives that would reveal how we had come to our current ways of thinking. I remember that Stephen shared his marvelous rain analogy with me at the time. But he also shared his primary remaining question. It was the same one my parishioners were asking: What is the source of our confidence in the Bible, if it doesn’t make amazingly accurate natural scientific statements long before this was humanly possible? I promised him that I would take up that question at the end of my personal narrative, and I will do so in a future post, once I’ve finished the story of my paradigm pilgrimage.

The rest of the development of my thinking on the question of ultimate origins came about as Stephen and I worked on our manuscript. For one thing, as I read through his chapters and considered in turn the scientific questions each one addressed, I moved away from a position of suspended judgment on these questions and became convinced that the scientific account of natural origins was essentially accurate.

I’d never been entirely convinced that a single flood event could have been responsible for depositing the overwhelming majority of fossils in the ground, and I’d earlier come to accept that the world was billions of years old rather than thousands. Now it also seemed clear to me that any given species had only existed for a certain part of geologic time; all species had not been in existence right from the start. I also accepted that newer species had developed from older ones; they had not been individually created.

I had learned enough to know that within evolutionary theory, classical Darwinists were constantly fending off attacks from new schools of thought, and so I still held a fluid, open understanding of the evolutionary process itself. I also knew that within the theory there were still many fascinating unanswered questions, such as the origin of flight in birds. But I was now convinced that the basic outline of biological history was accurately this: More and more complex life forms had indeed developed out of earlier and simpler ones over a very long period of time, through means such as genetic variation and natural selection.

Once we’d written a first draft of our manuscript, Stephen was able to get a copy into the hands of Dr. Brian Alters, director of the Evolution Education Research Centre at McGill University. Dr. Alters kindly offered many helpful suggestions to both of us. Sometime later, his publisher asked me to review a copy of a book he had co-authored with his wife Sandra, herself a science educator, to help biology teachers understand the concerns that creationist students might be bringing to their classes, to help teachers address these concerns sensitively and positively.

The book was ultimately entitled Defending Evolution in the Classroom (though I suggested Understanding Your Creationist Students as a title that might reflect its content and purpose even more clearly). It was a joy for me to read. It brought relief to my mind by offering a simple but elegant and powerful distinction as the key to addressing creationist students’ concerns. Science, the Alters wrote, is committed to a “methodological naturalism,” in that it does not admit supernatural causes as it seeks to explain the phenomena it is observing. There is no necessity for science to insist that there is no supernatural. Indeed, responsible science is aware of its own limitations and acknowledges freely which questions it cannot answer. It simply insists that it is following certain disciplines in its pursuit of understanding, and that one of these disciplines is to limit itself to what is observable and measurable in offering explanations.

By contrast, “metaphysical naturalism” is a philosophical position which holds that there is no supernatural (or, in milder form, no supernatural that we can meaningfully access). Many metaphysical naturalists, in promoting their own philosophy, have appealed to evolution as a paradigm that, they say, can offer a comprehensive account of ultimate origins and purpose. But such an appeal has no more place in a biology classroom than one to the book of Genesis.

Science answers questions of what, when, and how in seeking to explain origins, but it responsibly remains silent on questions of who and why, which are instead the purview of religion and philosophy. In reflecting on this comfortable separation of competencies, I thought back to my childhood when I was first told of the lake in Massachusetts, known as Lake Webster in English, whose long Algonquin name, Chaubunagungamaug, is sometimes translated, “You fish on your side, we fish on our side, nobody fish in the middle.” Apparently this is an inaccurate translation, but it is nevertheless a good motto for science and religion to adopt.

Indeed, as I read the Alters’ distinction between “methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism,” I felt that identifying the two and insisting on the former in the biology classroom provided the grounds for an abiding truce between religion and science, which had been incorrectly portrayed as combatants for far too long. There was nothing disloyal to God about looking for the most reasonable explanation of the observations biologists had made to date, or even about concluding that the most reasonable explanation was that later, more complex life forms had developed from earlier, simpler ones in a process extending over time.

I sent a grateful, glowing review to the publisher, and I would henceforth use the Alters’ distinction between “methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism” in all of my thinking and speaking on the evolution-creation controversy. This distinction actually gave me a measured retrospective appreciation for the creationist materials I had read and distributed in earlier years. In some places a “metaphysical naturalism” really was being asserted, rather than a science that knew its own limits, and wherever this was the case, someone needed to blow the whistle. Metaphysical naturalism had no more place in the classroom or the laboratory than more overt religion. I could see clearly what the creationists were so upset about—their children really were being indoctrinated in a rival faith, at least in some cases. But the solution, I saw more clearly than ever, was not to let any religious or philosophical positions become confused with reasoned descriptions of scientific observations. As soon as the limits of those observations were reached in the biology classroom, it was time to head down the hall to a different classroom to continue the discussion.

Lake Webster (Chaubunagungamaug), Massachusetts. You fish on your side, we fish on our side, nobody fish in the middle.

3 thoughts on “33 Methodological naturalism vs. metaphysical naturalism”

  1. Quite a few atheists/agnostics/secular humanists slide from methodological naturalism to metaphysical naturalism and think nothing of it, so it is very important for believers who read their books (like me) to be able to recognize it when it happens. And what makes it even worse is that they can use this “slide” as a kind of intellectual “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” on those that decline to agree with them on the metaphysical naturalist aspect (if you catch the Beatle’s song reference).

    One fundamental challenge in discussing or teaching this area is that there are some theists who insist that one needs to choose between either God or science (particularly evolution) and some atheists who make the exact same claim.

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