Naturalism: thought or method?

So, in keeping with my personal quest to see the world enlightened, today’s post is about naturalism, what it is and why there’s an important distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. It’s fair to say that one is fairly well applied, even by those people who don’t realise it, whereas the other is really only applied by Big Thinkers. I’m not a philosopher, nor have I done any studies of those subjects that are even remotely connected to philosophy or epistemology (the study of where knowledge comes from) or anything like that. I’m a scientist, and I like to think I’ve fairly rational thought processes. In explaining all of this, in terms I understand, I’m hoping that other people will understand it better.

Before I go into the nitty gritty of this, I’d just like to say that I’ll provide no citations or a reference list, no bibliography or carefully crafted ‘proofs’. Everything I write about is easily picked up by 5 minutes of research on the internet. If you don’t trust what I’m putting across – read more about it. Don’t assume I know what I’m talking about simply because I’ve made it look proper and official. Like a lot of subjects, there’s no substitute for reading up on this yourself and coming to your own conclusions. If you want a list of easily absorbed sound-bites and some pithy quotes, go to the Encyclopedia Dramatica (NSFW!) instead.

First things first; what is naturalism? Naturalism is “the idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world”. It’s the assumption you make when you boil the kettle to have a cup of tea. You don’t expect a little imp to prevent the water boiling, there’s no moment of apprehension when you switch the ‘on’ switch and hope that a ghost doesn’t make the thing explode and, unless you’re a very firm believer, you wouldn’t stare at an unconnected kettle and pray fervently for the tea to make itself. You work with the assumption that physical forces and rules operate in the construction of your hot beverage, if there are other supernatural aspects to it, it’s irrelevant to the process.

Methodological naturalism is the process by which science and engineering works. It makes that assumption that only that which is observable and testable is having an effect. The thinking goes that if it’s unobservable and has no discernible effect, or if it cannot be tested and accounted for/eliminated, there’s no point in science doing anything about it. After all, if it’s invisible, undetectable and has no effect, then it may as well not be there at all. If it has an effect, even marginally, on the physical world, then it can be tested and shown to exist. Gods may or may not exist; however, because of methodological naturalism, issues of the divine are not taken into account – it cannot be tested, or observed. Some proponents of the supernatural may disagree (and they do), but the fact remains; unless it can be tested in conditions that produce understandable and repeatable results, then it’s nothing more than random chance; and even random chance can be accounted for. Because of this inability of the supernatural to provide evidence, science remains explicitly neutral on the matter.

Some people, theists especially, have placed the cart before the horse and looked at methodological naturalism and its inability to make announcements about the supernatural, and come to the conclusion that science is atheistic first; it makes the assumption that supernatural causes don’t exist and then actively refuses to examine claims of the supernatural. This is a fallacy; science has laid down the method by which things can be known, if the supernatural cannot provide evidence, then that’s a problem with the ability of the supernatural to show a consistent effect. For those people who argue that the initial method is flawed and deliberately designed to exclude ‘other ways of knowing’ – methodological naturalism has raised us from the renaissance (and before) to the modern era without any contributions from the supernatural at all. If the supernatural has contributions to make, it’s clearly not much of one.

Philosophical naturalism takes the methodological version one step further; instead of going with the assumption that only the observable and testing has an effect, it makes the claim that the observable, material world is all that there is. As can be figured out by the name, this is a philosophical position; it’s not designed to be either testable or proveable, however, from the work done using methodological naturalism, proponents of this line of thought are fairly confident that it’s unlikely to be over-turned any time soon. It’s the position held by most ‘professional’ philosophers, although a significant few hold that there are other ways of knowing. Ultimately, this is a faith position and as such cannot be claimed with 100% certainty; any honest atheist would admit to this. However, methodological naturalism is not, it makes no such sweeping objective claims and remains firmly rooted in empirical grounds.


There’s a quote I’d like to finish with, from a columnist at the Washington Post called Gene Weingarten:

If a philosopher or social scientist were to try to encapsulate a single principle that yoked together the intellectual process of civilization (sic), it would be a gradual dismantling of presumptions of magic. Brick by brick, century by century, with occasional burps and hiccups, the wall of superstition has been coming down. Science and medicine and political philosophy have been on a relentless march in one direction only — sometimes slow, sometimes at a gallop, but never reversing course. Never has an empirical scientific discovery been deemed wrong and replaced by a more convincing mystical explanation. (“Holy cow, Dr. Pasteur! I’ve examined the pancreas of a diabetic dog, and darned if it’s NOT an insulin deficiency, but a little evil goblin dwelling inside. And he seems really pissed!”) Some magical presumptions have stubbornly persisted way longer than others, but have eventually, inexorably fallen to logic, reason and enlightenment, such as the assumption of the divine right of kings and the entitlement of aristocracy. That one took five millennia, but fall it did.


As always, comments below, especially if you object or think I’ve got this all wrong.

One thought on “Naturalism: thought or method?

  1. Nice article and nice find in Encyclopedia Dramatica! I like the idea of looking at a kettle and praying to make it boil. The quantum chi lines really will be in flux with the force of prayer working one way and the “watched kettle never boils” force acting against it. Woo fight!