What follows is a proposed FAQ article for the Talk.Origins (TalkDesign)
archive. It is revised according to comments from the last time I posted
it, a week or two ago. Lines that are different from the previous posting
are marked with ">>" at the beginning, except one longer revision (on
fundamental assumptions) is marked with ">>>" at its beginning and "<<<" at
A Philosophical Premise of 'Naturalism'?
>>The main objection some prominent intelligent design (ID) creationists
have against evolution is that it is unjustifiably based on the
philosophical underpinning of naturalism. "The Neo-Darwinian conclusion
about the process of evolution is based on a premise of metaphysical
naturalism: that there are no causes except matter in mindless motion."
(ARN, 1996) And "The metaphysical assumptions of scientific materialism
are not themselves established by scientific investigation, but rather are
held a priori as unchallengeable and usually unexamined components of the
'scientific' worldview." (Johnson, 1989) This leads to the claim that
evolution excludes God (Johnson, 1999), and that it is only fair to teach
an alternative (intelligent design) that allows supernatural influence.
This essay, however, will show that the above claims are false. Although
science does make some assumptions that might be considered naturalistic
in a sense, the assumptions that science is based on are not as
restrictive as creationists claim. Furthermore, the proponents of
intelligent design make *exactly the same assumptions* in their own work.
Finally, we will see that the complaint about naturalism is applied
unfairly to discredit only those parts of science that naturalism's
critics oppose on ideological grounds.
We first must clarify (or try to do so) what is meant by "naturalism."
Naturalism is the philosophy that states that explanations for all
phenomena must be in terms of natural causes. Some usages of
"materialism" are similar, and the two terms are sometimes used
interchangeably. The main point that naturalism's critics object to is
exclusion of the supernatural. Some people distinguish between
philosophical naturalism, which states that natural causes are all there
are, and methodological naturalism, which says merely that natural causes
are all that is available for science to work with. In either case, the
definition invites the question of what "nature" means. A complete
definition would have to explain how to distinguish whether something is
natural or supernatural. I have never seen that problem addressed
satisfactorily, and I will not attempt to do so here. I will use the
terms "nature" and "supernatural" in their usual informal senses.
"Supernatural" refers to certain inexplicable or inscrutable phenomena
that are traditionally given that label, and nature refers to everything
else in the universe.
Naturalism gets associated with science because natural explanations have
such a good track record for explaining observed phenomena. To date,
natural explanations have been determined for very, very many previously
unknown areas, and supernatural explanations have been determined for
none. When exploring another unknown area, the possibility of a natural
explanation is the way to bet. Researchers bet that way routinely, and as
a result the human race has benefitted with incredible advances in
medicine, agriculture, electronics, materials science, and more.
Supernatural explanations, on the other hand, have led nowhere.
Indeed, many supernatural explanations are rejected not because they are
supernatural but because they cannot or do not lead anywhere. It is
possible to come up with any number of possible explanations for anything
-- lost socks could be caused by extradimensional vortices which our
observations prevent from forming; hiccups could be caused by evil spirits
inside us trying to escape; stock market fluctuations could be caused by
the secret manipulations of powerful extraterrestrials. Scientists reject
such claims on the grounds of parsimony. All of those claims are
possible, but they require adding complicated entities which there is no
adequate evidence for. To make matters worse, the nature of those
entities effectively prevents investigation of them, and the impossibility
of investigation prevents us from learning anything new about them. We
cannot conclude that any of those explanations are wrong. But from a
scientific standpoint, they are worse than wrong; they are useless.
The naturalism that anti-evolutionists most object to is philosophical
naturalism, which insists on natural explanations even outside science --
i.e., that "nature is all there is." Many scientists, however, do not
accept philosophical naturalism either. Some are staunch believers in God
>>or other supernaturalism, including major contributors to evolutionary
theory, such as Alfred Russel Wallace, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and Ronald
Fisher, and active researchers and defenders of evolution today, such as
Kenneth R. Miller and Francisco J. Ayala (see also Slack, 1997). In the
United States, by one poll, roughly 40% of scientists believe in an active
personal God, and there are surely many more who believe in a God fitting
a definition less restrictive than the one used in the poll (Larson &
Witham, 1999). These scientists would hardly work to support a
philosophical position that they are steadfastly opposed to. Right away,
then, we see that the main complaint about naturalism is trivially untrue.
Critics of naturalism (I will call them ID advocates for short, although
some other creationists make the same criticisms) still deny such obvious
facts, though. One method of denial is to claim that the God that their
opponents believe in doesn't count. For example: "Naturalistic evolution
is consistent with the existence of 'God' only if by that term we mean no
more than a first cause which retires from further activity after
establishing the laws of nature and setting the natural mechanism in
motion." (Johnson, 1990) To those of us who know a few evolutionary
biologists personally, such assertions are beyond ludicrous. There are
likely some people who believe as Johnson describes, but there are many
others for whom God is a personal, ever-present force in their life.
Several denominations of Christianity and other religions, including
Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Jews, see no conflict between
>>God and evolution. (NCSE, 2000) This could hardly be the case if a
naturalism inherent in evolution was inimical to theistic religion.
The other common method of denial is to focus attention on the handful of
scientists who do support philosophical naturalism, such as William
Provine and Richard Dawkins. These scientists, however, do not speak for
all of science. Indeed, no scientists do. Part of science's strength is
its diversity. Since scientists of many diverse religions are studying
evolution, any religious bias one scientist tries to insert into it will
soon be rejected by another. Moreover, philosophers of science, who have
no stake in actual theories, also scrutinize science for unwarranted
assumptions. With these watchdogs, we can be confident that the theory in
the end will be virtually free of religious bias. Likewise for various
philosophical, political, and cultural views. Some scientists will
disagree with some of the things I say below about the supernatural. But
the fact remains that there are many scientists who accept supernatural
views in their religion -- some who even see their religion as motivating
and inspiring their science -- and who are completely accepted in the
field of science. Once one understands the basic requirements of science
(more on this below), this should not be surprising. Focusing only on the
most materialist scientists and disregarding the rest is a propaganda
ploy, not an argument.
Most scientists would admit that there will always be phenomena that have
not been explained. The more we learn, the more areas of ignorance we
uncover. The wise person, when looking at these unknown areas, will say
simply, "I don't know." The ID advocates, on the other hand, see the
unknowns as openings for the supernatural, perhaps even evidence for it.
This is the god of the gaps. Many people, including religious scientists,
reject the god of the gaps for purely theological reasons, reasons that
have nothing to do with naturalism. For example, they see such a position
as opposing a belief in a God that is active in all creation; and, as new
discoveries fill the gaps in which God is placed, they see the
god-of-the-gaps as undermining a reason to believe in God. (Miller, 1998;
Lamoureaux, 1999) Far from denying the supernatural, they are denying that
human *ignorance* is a basis for worship.
Spirituality expresses itself differently to different people. Some
people see their God denied by the theory of evolution. Others see God in
the operation of nature, inseparable from the theory of evolution; they
see a need for blatantly supernatural evidence of God as effectively
denying God. Others have a variety of entirely different views. This
range of views exists among scientists as well as the population at large.
One may fail to understand all these views, but to pretend they don't
exist is the height of insensitivity. A single spiritual view will not
apply to everyone, and trying to impose one will benefit nobody but the
A related claim is that adherence to naturalism rules out, _a priori_, the
possibility of detecting design (SEAO, n.d.). This claim also is easily
seen to be utterly false, and not just because scientists needn't adhere
to naturalism. Even when assuming naturalism, detecting design is
obviously possible. One example comes from Carl Sagan, who suggests that
design can be inferred from a sequence of bits counting out the first few
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