By Mathew Goldstein
The theoretical physicist Sean Carroll recorded a series of 24 videos titled “The Biggest Ideas in the Universe!” Following this paragraph is a transcript of the methodological naturalism topic excerpted from video #24 “Science”, which addresses philosophy of science issues (it is about 2 hours). Atheists in particular can (and should) reject the misconception that science is limited to, and constrained by, methodological naturalism. This common misconception is then utilized by theists and others to mischaracterize science as being intrinsically biased against supernaturalism.
You try to invent a theory of science, and someone is doing science, but it doesn’t count according to your criteria. What you should say in that case is that “oh, my criteria of what is science was not quit right, I should update it”. But in fact what people say all the time is “that is not science, what you are doing over there’s not science. I know you think it is, but it’s not because I figured out what science is and it’s not that.” I think, as much as I am a fan of philosophy in general, this is something that happens at the boundary of philosophy and science itself. Either scientists, or philosophers, try to come up with the correct, we are done with it, philosophy of science. And rather than updating that philosophy when they encounter something that they did not understand before, they ipso facto exclude it from counting as science.
I think that's a mistake. So let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean. One is, maybe you're too young to know much about this, but there's this idea called methodological naturalism. It's a mouthful.
This again is a holdover from the days of fighting against creationism in public schools which was a big thing in the United States of America in the 80s 90s into the 2000s. Okay, so the idea of methodological naturalism it's different than naturalism. So, what naturalism is is the idea that there's only one universe, one reality, the natural world, the world that we discover by science. That's what naturalism says, and you might call that metaphysical naturalism or ontological naturalism. It’s a statement about the nature of reality. Reality is fully described by the natural world, there's no separate supernatural world, for example. Methodological naturalism was the idea that was completely invented by people who are trying to fight against creationism. So with the best intentions, they said science proceeds under the assumptions of methodological naturalism, which is the assumption, ahead of time, that when we go to explain some observations, we do so in a naturalistic way. In other words, that the kinds of explanations that science can come up with are just in principle, just a priori, just because we said so, naturalistic explanations. So the idea of methodological naturalism was even if the true explanation for a phenomenon was supernatural, science would never allow you to contemplate that. And the reason why they came up with this cockamamie scheme was they wanted to be able to say, intelligent design should not be taught in public schools.
So it's an entirely political motive, not a philosophical or scientific one. They wanted to say that this attempt to bring religion to schools, which is what it was, like intelligent design, was clearly an attempt to smuggle religion into public school teaching, and they wanted to argue against it by saying, well we can't allow supernatural explanations in science. But that's just wrong, like nothing that we said up here had anything to do with what kinds of explanations are allowed. We come up with the best explanations, that's what abduction said. Whatever explanation fits the data the best is the one that we like. If you could convince me that there is some data for which the best explanation is to assume that naturalism is wrong, then any good scientist will say, therefore naturalism is probably wrong. If an angel comes down, you know, with a flaming sword and wings and so forth, and says “All right, I'm going to perform some miracles for you now”, and this happens regularly, and it can't be explained by illusions or trickery or laws of physics or anything like that. Or if, you know, all sorts of things happen simultaneously throughout the world to bring true some predictions that were made by some religious tradition. A good scientist would say well, we should at least consider those explanations.
So the reason why you should keep intelligent design out of schools is not because it's not science. It's because it's bad science, it's because they're not explaining anything better than Darwinian natural selection ever would have explained. But that argument seems a little bit more loosey goosey, like you're not saying that something is cut and dried disallowed. You’re saying it's not very good and then people can make the counter argument against that. What I'm here to say is yes, that is correct. You need to bite the bullet and make that hard argument, make the case that this is bad science and should not be taught because it is clearly just an attempt to smuggle religion into your schools. You should not invent weird philosophical principles after the fact to justify your choice. You should be honest about how science works.
Science is not methodologically natural, it is methodological empiricism. In other words, the philosophical presupposition of science is not what kinds of explanations we will allow, but how we decide which explanations are correct. Namely, we do not appeal to revelation, we appeal to the data, to looking at the world. We say which of our explanations is the best fit to the empirical information we get about the world, and we could always be wrong, and we could always try to be better.