Questions for Proponents of Methodological Naturalism

Earlier I posted some questions for critics of methodological by Dr. Joshua Swamidass. I plan on writing a response to Dr. Swamidass’s criticisms and questions, but for the moment I will offer my own questions to the proponents of Methodological Naturalism.

I often get the feeling that “methodological naturalism” is often raised in modern times for the simple reason of excluding specific groups of people from science rather than being a real position on the philosophy of science. The reason I think this is that (a) it relies on a definition of “natural” that seems to either be never stated, (b) it is asserted against groups of people for which it is only tangentially related, and (c) it is only used to curtail infractions in a single direction. For instance, most creationism is actually methodologically naturalistic, or, if it is not, it is trivially easy to make it so (every description of the actions of the flood I’ve seen are naturalistic – none talk about miracles during the flood). Yet creationists are usually the group pointed to by methodological naturalists when they are making their case.

I would say that, although the questions below are immediately obvious to me as questions one should ask about methodological naturalism (it took me about 10 minutes to come up with them), I have never seen any proponent of methodological naturalism take them up. These seem to be basic, fundamental questions that need answering if methodological naturalism is so important to science. The fact that they are not seems to me to indicate that, at least for many, the point of methodological naturalism is not to have a well-founded philosophy of science, but just to be able to exclude certain groups you don’t like and pretend to be doing it on principle.

Here are the questions:

  1. In methodological naturalism, what exactly is meant by naturalism? How does one determine if a proposed cause is “naturalistic” or not? Some people say, “unobservable,” but if that means it can’t be physically seen it is no different than other parts of physics and chemistry. If that means that it has no effects in the current world, then that is a definition that no supernaturalist would agree with (I certainly think the human soul exhibits effects – i.e., humans would be different without a soul). Other people have tried “testability,” but that is merely the flip side of “observable”. Therefore, what would really count as a demarcation between a proposed cause as being “naturalistic” vs. “non-naturalistic”? If a set of criteria cannot be deduced, then wouldn’t that make “methodological naturalism” equivalent to “special pleading against explanations I don’t like”?
  2. Many of the things that were essential to naturalism in the 1600s were overturned by Newton, and many of the things that were essential to naturalism in the 1800s were overturned by Quantum Mechanics. If naturalism is such a fuzzy concept as to be continually overturned by new physics, why is it important?
  3. If humans have a supernatural component (i.e., a soul), then is it problematic for biologists to not be allowed to probe the parts of human behavior dependent on it, and/or require them to give wrong explanations for behavior (i.e., use a naturalistic explanation when one is not appropriate)?
  4. Is there a way to determine whether or not a phenomena is understandable via naturalism when it is first investigated? If not, what should a scientist do if they are investigating a cause but later discover that it is not naturalistic? Should they abandon their research? What would the appropriate move be?
  5. Doesn’t methodological naturalism mean that scientists who are philosophically naturalistic can study more types of phenomena than those who disagree philosophically, because of the types of causes they believe responsible? Is it reasonable to exclude groups of people from scientific discussions based on whether or not they agree with philosophical naturalism?
  6. If there is a disagreement among scientists as to whether or not a particular phenomena is naturalistic or non-naturalistic, what is the appropriate place for such scientists to have a discussion? Should the results of this discussion influence scientific practice? Should science journals heed the results of such discussions? Should science textbooks heed the results of such discussions? If not, what is the point of having such discussions at all?
  7. If two scientists (A and B) agree that phenomena X with description Y are the cause of an event, but A believes that the phenomena is non-naturalistic, and B believes that the phenomena is naturalistic, does that mean that scientist B can investigate it but scientist A cannot?
  8. If a phenomena that has been studied in science journals for years is later found to be non-naturalistic (by whatever definition given), should that phenomena cease to be covered by the science journals? Should the prior papers be retracted?
  9. If a phenomena is currently under discussion in a philosophy journal as to whether or not the phenomena is naturalistic, what should the status of scientific research be? Should scientists stop doing research until a result is found by the philosophy journals? Should the science journals feel bound to the decision of the philosophy journals? If so, which ones would hold the definitive answers? If not, what would the point of methodological naturalism be except to enforce philosophical naturalism?
  10. The Big Bang was founded by a Priest who, in his unpublished work, said that it confirmed the Genesis account of creation. Today, many people (including some who do research on it) continue to hold to this idea, and say that the Big Bang shows that the universe has a supernatural origin. Does that mean that the Big Bang theory should be removed from science? Why or why not? How do those criteria affect other theories that involve divine origins?
  11. In many other academic areas with boundaries, the boundaries are informative rather than strict. I.e., if my studies are in Renaissance art, it would certainly be problematic if I spent my entire time talking about Hellenistic art or automobile designs. However, no one would object at all for including some ideas in a Renaissance art journal on how ideas from Hellenistic art studies can be used in Renaissance art studies, or how Renaissance art can influence modern automobile designs. However, the strict methodological naturalism being promoted is not simply informative, but normative, which actively prevents this type of crossover knowledge. Why are the sciences the only area where crossover knowledge is not important?
  12. Experience is not the same as naturalism. We have experience of the supernatural just in talking with other people (as consciousness and creativity – two aspects of humanity – are supernatural, not natural). Thus, one could ground the supernatural in experience just like the natural. Therefore, could one not use such experience scientifically as well?

Anyway, if you are a methodological naturalist, I would love to hear your answers to these questions.

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