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Saturday, October 22, 2005

An article on there being a distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism, and the naturalistic fallacy:

Fundamentalism and Science

"The crucial point here is that a scientist is, essentially by definition, a methodological naturalist; however, she does not have any specific commitment (aside from her own metaphysical views) to philosophical naturalism. In other words, science does not necessarily entail atheism, which is the fundamentalist's fear. How can we explain this to the general public? One way to go about it is to point out that most people are in fact methodological naturalists when it comes to everyday life. Suppose your car doesn't start today: how do you react to such an annoying occurrence? Most likely you will not invoke supernatural explanations, and will not attempt to have the car exorcised. Rather, regardless of your religious convictions, you will bring it to a mechanic, assuming (methodologically) that there must be something physically wrong with it. Moreover, even if the mechanic will not find the answer, and will not be able to fix your car, you will still persist in the (reasonable) belief that there must have been something physically out of place, with no supernatural implications or intervention required. You will shrug your shoulders, grudgingly pay the bill to the mechanic, and go in search of a new car or another mechanic. That is exactly what scientists do, and are required to do by their profession -- no more, no less."

My letter to the writer:


Your piece on fundamentalism and science may be good for PR purposes, but your distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism seems too clear cut.

Almost all people live their lives by methodological naturalism; the joke comes to mind about the man who relates a tale of a talking frog which he kisses, turning it into a young girl under the age of consent and concluding, "And that, your honor, is how the girl ended up in my room." Similarly, though many Christians praise Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son to JHVH, claiming divine sanction as a reason to murder your children is untenable in a court of law, as Deanna Laney found out after being declared insane for using the same excuse.

However, is there not some fundamental dissonance between methodological naturalism and philosophical supernaturalism? If you believe in spirits and gods, it is entirely consistent to believe that they affect the natural world. Indeed, if they did not affect the natural world, why believe in them in the first place? If god created the world, why do we assume he cannot have moved our pendulum?

Are spirits/gods just convenient vessels for spirituality, magically robbed of their power and significance when they cross the line into another realm? When does the socially accepted and condoned spiritual comfort that someone gets from communing with his gods turn into a label of insanity when those same gods turn from teaching him yoga to telling him to kill people?

Perhaps the only religious theories which are compatible with both methodological naturalism and philosophical supernaturalism are variants on the modern "all religions are the same"/"all religions teach you to do good"/"god is a metaphor"/"we are god" rubbish and this, as Freud dryly noted, is in truth a deeply irreligious position; an impotent god which cannot (or does not choose to) affect reality at all cannot be said to be a god. Even a dust mite has more power to affect reality than the god(s) of a proponent of both methodological naturalism and philosophical supernaturalism.

Perhaps peripherally related to the issue is a piece by Natalie Angier called "My God Problem" (

Without being deeply disingenuous, I do not think that it's possible to prevent methodological naturalism from becoming philosophical naturalism, since it the latter is the natural corollary of the former.

As for the is-ought fallacy, the reason why so many fundamentalists get tripped up over it is precisely because they think that what is is what ought to be, for it is from this that they derive their system of morality and world view. They then engage in Freudian projection and accuse naturalists of endorsing the cruel state of nature. It's a failure of imagination on their part.
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