A question from a reader about methodological naturalism

The following question was submitted by a reader. The response is from Dr. Smith, since the question arises from his part of the story.


Q. In your book, following the Alters, you describe and define methodological naturalism over against metaphysical naturalism. These terms have become fairly mainstream in the science-faith discussion, as they potentially divide what theistic evolutionists consider valid science and what other groups like the Intelligent Design community consider scientific (e.g. scientific evidence of an intelligent designer in nature). Intelligent Design advocates are very critical of methodological naturalism and prefer the term methodological neutralism, or simply reject the distinction altogether. Some have defined methodological naturalism as either hard or soft (or strong/weak), where soft methodological naturalism simply excludes supernatural intelligence from consideration in science, and hard methodological naturalism excludes all intelligence from consideration in science. How would you potentially view the term?

A. I hadn’t been aware before of the discussion between theistic evolutionists and Intelligent Design proponents about methodological naturalism versus methodological neutralism, so I appreciate you bringing this to my attention. It makes perfect sense to me that Intelligent Design advocates wouldn’t want to accept methodological naturalism as an intrinsic commitment of science, because they want science to be able to declare that it has found evidence of supernatural activity. So this is really a debate about what science is.

People might understand and define the term “science” in a variety of ways, of course. But my belief is that science is rightly a discipline that limits itself to what can be observed and measured, and to explanations that involve causes that can also be observed and measured, i.e. natural causes.

One key principle of science is that findings have to be able to be replicated. I think we have to accept at least that as one of the “rules of the game.” But the findings of faith cannot be replicated by people who don’t have faith. So you really can’t mix the two categories. That being the case, if you’re looking at something that can’t yet be explained naturalistically, it’s not consistent with science to say that this must be due to a supernatural agency.

I personally don’t find the distinction between supernatural intelligence vs. all intelligence very meaningful. If something isn’t simply a process of nature, then any intelligence at work has to be super-natural. I guess on the spectrum you describe, I’d be considered a “hard” methodological naturalist, in that I don’t think science has any business positing supernatural explanations. But I don’t think it has any business denying that the supernatural exists, either; questions like that are the purview of a different realm—religion. (But I imagine it’s already clear from our book that this is my position!)

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