Should Only Naturalistic Explanations
Be Allowed in Our Science Classrooms?
A look at the creation/evolution controversy from the perspective of a Cobb County parent.
I live in Cobb County, GA, where there has been a heated controversy over stickers placed in front of public school biology textbooks that say,
"This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered."
The stickers were placed in the books in response to a last-minute petition signed by over two thousand concerned parents. Much later, only six parents, backed by the ACLU, challenged the constitutionality of the stickers in court and won. The school board appealed, and late last year, a three judge appeals panel of the 11th US Circuit Court heard arguments from both sides. As of this writing, the decision of the Federal Appeals Court has yet to be announced.
This is yet another battleground in the controversy over whether or not ideas that make room for religious concepts should be allowed in public school science. Although I am a science layman, I have four children in public school, so this controversy has naturally been of great interest to me. Few would deny that parents should rightly have a voice in issues that affect the education of their children, especially parents who have taken the time to familiarize themselves regarding those issues. In light of that, I would like to use that voice to share some observations and concerns regarding this subject, from the perspective of a concerned parent.
I will begin by discussing the stickers, and then move on to some of the broader implications that this controversy, and others like it, have regarding science and public school science.
The wording of these stickers has been criticized because they use the words “theory” and “evolution” according to common usage, rather than according to strict scientific terminology. In science, the word “theory” is used to refer to a widely accepted hypothesis, such as the theory of gravity. One kind of evolution, called microevolution, involves genetic change within a species population. This has been observed in nature and is accepted by nearly all scientists, including creationists. However, the hypothesis that all life is descended from one or more single-celled ancestors is not accepted by all scientists.
The most common understanding of the word evolution is that all life has descended from single celled ancestors, and the most common understanding of the word theory is that of an unproven idea. So the stickers are correct according to these popular definitions, because this kind of evolution is an unproven idea. Students, who primarily think according to popular definitions, will certainly get the right message. And the sentiment of the school board, that students should think critically about explanations of the origin of life, is absolutely correct. Therefore, I think that these stickers deserve to remain in the textbooks. Perhaps, if it becomes evident that the appeal will fail, or in the course of arbitration, the school board could propose an alternative wording according to strict scientific terminology, such as:
“This textbook contains material on evolution. While nearly all scientists agree that microevolution, or change within a species, happens, the idea that all life has evolved from single-celled ancestors is an unsubstantiated hypothesis or conjecture. You should be aware that there are alternative explanations of the origin of life that are not presented in this textbook. All explanations of origins should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”
You can bet that even a more carefully worded statement will be vigorously opposed, however. Many do not want any hypothesis of the origin of life that is not naturalistic taught in our public schools. They do not want high school students to be taught to think critically about particles-to-people evolution at all. No doubt, many of these people are motivated by naturalism – the belief that there is no supernatural. They believe that only naturalistic theories should be taught because they think that only these are true or rational. But oddly, many scientists who are religious also think that only naturalistic theories should be taught in public schools. Why is this, and are they justified in thinking this way?
There is a philosophy called methodological naturalism (MN) that motivates many scientists to exclude anything but naturalistic explanations from science. Sometimes, terms that describe certain philosophical perspectives, even popular ones, are not well known. That is the case with MN. Even many scientists are unfamiliar with this term, and among those who are, many cannot correctly define it. Often, they confuse it with the scientific method, or with other forms of naturalism. But make no mistake. Even though the term that describes it is not well known, this philosophy has a pervasive influence in modern science. Among those who are familiar with the term and understand the meaning of it, vehement arguments are often made for its legitimacy.
What is Methodological Naturalism?
MN has been defined in several ways, but for purposes of this article, I am adopting what is the most common understanding of it among scientists and philosophers. Simply stated, MN is the philosophy that in science, we should act as if there is no supernatural. MN not only restricts science to investigating the natural cosmos and explaining its order; it restricts science from even contemplating the possibility of the supernatural.
Sometimes, MN is confused with the scientific method, the process by which science is conducted, but it is not the same thing. The scientific method is the process by which science is conducted, but MN is a philosophy intended to place limitations upon that process.
MN is often confused with Ontological Naturalism (ON), also often called Metaphysical Naturalism. ON is also a common philosophy behind the motivations of a significant percentage of scientists. It is the belief that there is no supernatural, but MN is the philosophy that in science we should act as if there is no supernatural.
However, few informed scientists would argue that ON should be an undergirding philosophy behind science, because it involves obvious metaphysical presuppositions that are anti-religious. But many do argue for MN, which in concept (but not application) is more neutral with respect to religion.
What follows are some definitions of MN expressed by other writers, which all convey the same basic idea:
First, I take methodological naturalism to be the practice of adhering to the kind of methodology a metaphysical naturalist devoted to fulfilling the aims of science would adhere to. - Mark Vuletic, Methodological Naturalism and the Supernatural (1997}
Roughly speaking ON [ontological naturalism] is the view that only natural processes or events exist. It maintains that insofar as God, angels, the Devil, ghosts, and other such entities are supernatural, they do not exist. MN [methodological naturalism] is a much weaker position. It does not deny the existence of supernatural entities per se. It simply assumes for the purpose of inquiry that they do not exist. It goes on the assumption that in the context of inquiry only natural processes and events exist. - Michael Martin, Justifying Methodological Naturalism (2002) http://www.infidels.org/library/mod...naturalism.html
Philosophical naturalism itself exists in two forms: (1) ontological or metaphysical naturalism and (2) methodological naturalism. The former is philosophical naturalism as described above; the latter is the adoption or assumption of philosophical naturalism within scientific method with or without fully accepting or believing it. - Steven D. Schafersman, Second revision (May, 1997) of the paper originally presented at the Conference on Naturalism, Theism and the Scientific Enterprise, sponsered by the Department of Philosophy, The University of Texas, Austin, Texas, February 20-23, 1997
Can We Have Science Without MN?
Now that we have described what MN is, let’s make a very important observation. The effect of MN on science is the same as that of ON, because it also excludes supernatural considerations from science. The recognition of this would be, I think, naturally distasteful to many scientists with deep religious faith. This might hardly seem fair to them, and I think rightfully so. How would naturalists feel if they were pressured to utilize methodological theism – to conduct science as if God exists, even though they think He does not?
It seems to me that agnostic science is much more reasonable as a common ground. This would be the philosophy that we should conduct science as though the supernatural may possibly exist.
Constitutionally, I think that agnostic science is the way to go in our public schools, for it neither respects nor prohibits the exercise of any establishment of religion.
Although the idea of agnostic science would probably seem very reasonable to most of the non-scientific public, there are some loud voices in science arguing that that we cannot have good science without MN. Others argue that we cannot have science at all without it:
One presupposition of good science is "methodological naturalism," the limitation of scientific explanations to natural causes. ID proponents dislike this, but it is simply the way scientists work. No competent chemist or physicist, whatever his or her religious beliefs, would be content to explain a puzzling result of an experiment by saying "God did it." Only in connection with the development of life do a few scientists think that appealing to the supernatural is appropriate. - George L. Murphy, ID's Scientific, Theological Problems: A response to Jeffrey Bornemann's article, http://www.elca.org/lp/idproblem.html
‘Creation science’ is a contradiction in terms. A central tenet of modern science is methodological naturalism—it seeks to explain the universe purely in terms of observed or testable natural mechanisms. John Rennie, Editor in Chief, 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense, Scientific American, March 2002
Is it really true that science cannot be science if it admits the possibility of the supernatural?
Of course, to do science we have to postulate that certain natural laws are consistently at work in the present. But this does not mean that they have always been at work. For instance, many naturalists believe that the laws of the universe did not come into existance until the universe itself did. Other disciplines under the category of metaphysics, such as naturalism or theology, may cause us to make any number of assumptions about what produced certain intital conditions. Science can kick in at that point. From that point on, we may postulate that natural laws have been consistently at work and test for evidence that those initial conditions existed.
This means that naturalism is not the only philosophical approach to science that we can adopt. Many have in fact adopted alternative philosophical approaches such as theistic science and agnostic science. Both of these are open to the possible existance of the supernatural, but postulate that after possible supernatural intervention, natural laws are consistently at work. There is really nothing to prevent any one from adopting either of these philosophies of science. Many great scientists such as Newton did not adhere to MN, and still were able to conduct quite useful science and make valuable contributions to mankind.
Some argue that testable predictions cannot be made except with MN science. This is simply not true. Explanations with testable predictions are made quite often by proponents of creation science and ID, such as, "If there was a worldwide flood, we ought to find the following evidence of it..." Such predictions may be based on the record of scripture in the case of creationism, or based on design inferences with no reference to scripture in the case of ID. Russell Humphreys accurately predicted aspects of the solar system discovered by Voyager II, for instance, and based these predictions on scripture passages:
In 1984, when no space craft had yet reached Uranus and Neptune, I published a theory predicting the strength of the magnetic fields of those two planets in the Creation Research Society Quarterly, a peer-reviewed creationist scientific journal.2 I made the predictions on the basis of my hypotheses that (A) the raw material of creation was water (based on II Peter 3:5, "the earth was formed out of water and by water"), and (B) at the instant God created the water molecules, the spins of the hydrogen nuclei were all pointing in a particular direction.3 The tiny magnetic fields of so many nuclei would all add up to a large magnetic field. By the ordinary laws of physics, the spins of the nuclei would lose their alignment within seconds, but the large magnetic field would preserve itself by causing an electric current to circulate in the interior of each planet. By the same laws, the currents and fields would preserve themselves with only minor losses, as God rapidly transformed the water into other materials. After that, the currents and fields would decay due to electrical resistance over thousands of years.4 Not all creationists agree with my hypothesis that the original material was water, but all agree that once a magnetic field existed, it would decay over time.
....Two years later, on January 20, 1986, Voyager II passed by Uranus. It showed that Uranus has a magnetic moment of 3.0 x 1024 A m2, well within the bounds of my prediction. In contrast, many evolutionists had predicted that Uranus would have a much smaller field, or none at all.7 This prediction grew directly out of their "dynamo" theories, which assume that the fluid interior of a planet is like an electrical generator (dynamo) maintaining the magnetic field forever. The generator mechanism would be driven by heat in the interior, which would manifest itself by a significant heat outflow from the planet's surface. However, astronomic measurements had shown that Uranus has very little heat outflow. Hence, by their theories, Uranus should not have a strong magnetic field. But it does! - Russell Humphreys, Ph.D, BEYOND NEPTUNE: VOYAGER II SUPPORTS CREATION - IMPACT No. 203 May 1990
One may look for some point of contention with Humphreys or attempt to discredit his theory. But the point still stands: We can make testable predictions in violation of methodological naturalism. Although Humphrey’s explanation involved the miraculous, in violation of MN, predictions were made that could be tested by the collection of empirical data.
Here is a summary of the logical methodology Humphries followed:
A) If a proposed supernatural event occurred, then
B) these initial natural conditions existed. If these conditions, existed, assuming that natural laws have been operating with no supernatural intervention since the initial event, then
C) we can predict that empirical measurements will be within the following ranges.
Operationally, Humphreys followed conventional operational scientific methodologies from point B onwards. His violation of conventional modern science was a philosophical one, not an operational one. The violation of methodological naturalism occurred at point A, because according to methodological naturalism, we must not hypothesize the supernatural at all. A speculation such as A is excluded from consideration in MN science, and a testable hypothesis such as B would be considered invalid because it is based on that speculation. But this is an arbiratrary distinction based on philosophical objections, not on operational ones, because operationally, science works just fine from point B onwards.
This example serves to illustrate how we can indeed practice science without MN.
The Limitations of MN Science
The theistic or agnostic scientist has an advantage over the MN scientist. He is free to choose between theistic and naturalistic explanations, depending on which seems the most reasonable. The MN scientist, on the other hand, has restricted himself to naturalistic explanations, even when they appear to be quite improbable, counter-intuitive, or irrational.
Science bound by MN cannot, and does not invalidate religion. Since it is not able to even consider supernatural causes, it cannot rule them out. To rule them out, an MN scientist must step outside of science into the realm of metaphysics, or he must adopt an agnostic approach that is open to the possibility of the supernatural, at least for the sake of argument.
What about when there is no plausible naturalistic explanation available? Should we hold out forever waiting for one when other philosophical disciplines offer attractive explanations? If we restrict science to methodological naturalism, then scientists can never consider ideas from these disciplines and deem such conjectures "scientific."
What if nature is designed and created by a transcendent metaphysical intelligence? What if the evidence in nature actually points to this? Science bound by methodological naturalism must ignore this; it is forever bound to seek naturalistic explanations, no matter how implausible they may be. It is not free to follow the evidence wherever it may lead. Is this healthy? Is this the approach we really want to take into inquiring into the truth? Should the evidence be the standard of truth, or presupposition?
The Dangers of MN Science
When considering explanations for the origin of the universe, a person can contemplate metaphysical existence outside of nature and call this science, until thought turns to the idea of a transcendent metaphysical intelligence. Then it is said that he or she is no longer talking science, but religion. Restricting science to MN logically results in this kind of philosophical hypocrisy.
MN science makes no judgment as to whether or not the supernatural exists; it only refuses to consider it. Unfortunately, most people (including many scientists) do not realize this. As a result, many are under the mistaken impression that if a hypothesis of origins is naturalistic, it must be of greater intellectual merit than one that is not. This may or may not be the case. A naturalistic explanation may be considered plausible by the public because it is deemed “scientific,” when in reality, it is full of problems and puzzles, and even very improbable. It may just be the best naturalistic explanation that we can conceive of. A non-naturalistic explanation may be much more rational, but despite its merits, it must be rejected by MN Science. MN has the unfortunate side effect of discouraging us from contemplating the merits of religious explanations, since it forbids any conceptualization that concerns the supernatural from science.
Many scientists, not recognizing these things, actually equate naturalistic explanations with that which is rational. As a result, they have crossed over the line from methodological naturalism into ontological naturalism, often without even realizing it. The result is that ON Science, which apriori rejects the supernatural, is becoming much more common.
I will never forget a time when my own mother confessed to me that she was having a deep crisis of religious faith, because “so many scientists do not believe in God.” How many people have gone through a similar crisis, or have sadly abandoned faith in God, because they think that since religious ideas are “unscientific,” they must not be valid, true, or of intellectual merit? No one should make a decision of this importance based on a mistaken assumption like that! This is why I think it is very important that we teach philosophy of science in our schools.
A Popular Argument for MN Science
One of the most popular arguments for methodological naturalism is that it compels us to look for explanations. Just saying "God did it," it is argued, tends to stifle discovery. But this ignores several facts. First of all, theistic scientists do not deny the natural world or the order of it, so they are still motivated to explore it. They also hold that God created some things through natural processes, so they will still make inquiries into origins. Secondly, there are still plenty of metaphysical naturalists around who are motivated to look for naturalistic explanations. Thirdly, someone who already holds to a supernatural explanation for something is not going to devote his energy looking for a naturalistic explanation anyway. So really, the negative effect on scientific inquiry if methodological naturalism were dethroned would be virtually nil. However, methodological naturalism could motivate many to engage in futile searches for naturalistic explanations when explanations from other philosophical disciplines might be more probable. This could result in a tremendous waste of energy and time better devoted to other endeavors.
It is certainly possible to have operational science without methodological naturalism. Some of the greatest pioneers in science did not hold to MN, so we ought to reject assertions that there can be no science without it. Did these great theistic scientists of the past look for naturalistic explanations? Yes, but they did not confine themselves to them. Did they refuse to acknowledge or conceive of the supernatural in their scientific writings? No.
Obviously, science is restricted to the discipline of observing and exploring the natural world in an objective way, and I think it should be. There is no litmus strip to detect the presence of God. Gideon's fleece, for instance, is not an experiment that can be reliably repeated unless God chooses to co-operate. Subjective, mystical inquiries such as seeking to commune with God ought not to be called science, but that does not mean that they are not valid or real.
It is simply wrong to say that a theory or hypothesis which involves the possibility of the supernatural is “unscientific.” This contention assumes that only a naturalistic approach to science is valid, but as we have seen, MN science has some distinct disadvantages that the alternative approaches to science do not have.
Let’s restrict science to exploring the natural cosmos, but let's not restrict it to naturalistic explanations. Restrict it to naturalistic experiments and tests, yes, but do not limit it in its freedom to inquire into the truth.
Do we have something to fear if we allow science to inquire freely into the truth? Let's allow science to freely go wherever the evidence most reasonably points. We will hinder our quest for truth if we restrict science to acting as though one metaphysical presupposition is true.
For all of these reasons, I think that agnostic science, which is open to the possibility of the supernatural, is the common ground that we should pursue in government-endorsed science. Agnostic science includes the hypotheses of particle-to-people evolution as well as the concept of Intelligent Design under its umbrella.
ID does not specifically mention a supernatural Creator; it only makes allowance for the possibility of one, for an intelligent designer might not be supernatural at all. Nevertheless, there are some who want to exclude from public school science any hypothesis of the origin of life that makes allowance for the supernatural at all. This is carrying MN to the extreme. I believe that government endorsement of this kind of extreme MN science violates the constitution, for it prohibits the free exercise of religion by advocating a philosophy that forbids ideas in science that are open to the possibility of the supernatural.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Advocates of naturalism often stress the first requirement of this clause, but overlook the second. Only agnostic science satisfies both requirements, for without respecting any particular establishment of religion, it does not prohibit consideration of hypotheses that happen to coincide with religious thought.
It just so happens that in this case, constitutionality lines up with common sense. Does it make sense that any idea should be rejected from science simply because it happens to coincide with religious thought? No, ideas should be judged based on how well experimental evidence and observation supports them, without regard to how they coincide with religious concepts.
Likewise, is it logical to exclude an idea from science because we suspect that the person who proposed it had religious motivations? There may be some scientists who have such extreme naturalistic motivations they would love to see a government enforced ban on religion, a motivation clearly antithetical to the first amendment. Should we exclude their hypotheses from public school science because of it? No. Despite their motivations, they might come up with some ideas that explain the evidence. Here again, ideas should be judged in science based on how well experimental evidence and observation supports them, without regard to the metaphysical motivations of the person who proposed the theory.
Some argue that only the most widely accepted hypotheses among professional scientists should be taught, and that ID should be excluded from public school science on this basis. These people are concerned that informing students about ID will give them the false impression that ID is just as accepted among scientists as Neo-Darwinism is. This concern can easily be avoided by informing students which theories are the most widely accepted.
On the other hand, my concern is that teaching only one explanation will give students the false impression that scientists are akin to little gods or infallible popes dressed in lab coats. Students need to know that scientists are fallible human beings who are sometimes wrong, and who sometimes vigorously debate over alternative explanations. They should be made aware that popular concepts among scientists often give way to new ones. Teaching them about competing ideas can be provocative and mind-stimulating, and may very well spur them to get more involved in science.
Lastly, we need to teach students about the philosophy of science. They need to be made aware of the role that MN plays in conventional science, and that there are alternative philosophical approaches to science. They should be informed of the hypotheses of origins based on these other approaches. In this context, mention can be made of creation science and ON science without endorsing either. It would be wrong, I think, to deny our schoolchildren the opportunity to even consider issues of such importance.
A science professor at a university recently wrote to me, “I am convinced that most professional research scientists don't have a clue about the critical role that metaphysical naturalism plays in modern science. Neither do the teachers. So it seems nearly impossible in the current situation to get that message to the students. I've been fortunate to have an opportunity to interact with college juniors and seniors on the subject, and they were amazed when they got into it. I don't know of a book that treats this for high schoolers yet.”
There is no such textbook yet, but it is sorely needed. Hopefully, someone with the scientific and academic qualifications will hear the call and attempt to meet this need.
Naturalistic philosophy has grown to dominate scientific thought in our nation. This philosophical monopoly of naturalism hinders the pursuit of truth in science, and violates the constitution in our public schools. Instead of it, we need a better common philosophical paradigm in science that judges ideas not by metaphysical preconceptions, but by how well those ideas match observational evidence.
Cobb County, GA
Rusty Entrekin and his wife Julie have seven children, of whom four attended public school in Cobb County, GA at the time of this writing.
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Perhaps you could get my column published in your local paper, too! Have your newspaper editor contact me. Also, feel free to email me with any of your questions, comments or disagreements. - Tom Carpenter
© Marshall "Rusty" Entrekin
This article was not published in the Rockdale/Newton Citizen