From Scientific Method to Methodological Naturalism: The Evolution of an Idea

By Poe, Harry Lee; Mytyk, Chelsea Rose | Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, September 2007 | Go to article overview

From Scientific Method to Methodological Naturalism: The Evolution of an Idea


Poe, Harry Lee, Mytyk, Chelsea Rose, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith


In response to the appearance of Scientific Creationism and its growing popularity in conservative Protestant circles in the 1960s, Paul de Vries proposed a way of thinking about the scientific enterprise that he named "methodological naturalism." As a professor of philosophy at Wheaton College, de Vries found himself at the intellectual center of American evangelicalism and sought to offer his students an alternative to Scientific Creationism on the one hand and "evolutionistic scientism" on the other, both of which de Vries thought distorted science and manipulated faith. (1)

The term methodological naturalism first appeared in print in "Naturalism in the Natural Sciences," an article written by de Vries that appeared in Christian Scholars Review in 1986. De Vries had used the term for many years in his classes and in conversation with his colleagues at Wheaton before publishing his article. Since the publication of the article, the term "methodological naturalism" has gained some acceptance in the scientific, theological, and philosophical communities that deal with science and religion. The term is used by physicist-theologian Robert Russell who approves of it, and mathematician-philosopher William Dembski who disapproves of it. (2) Karl Giberson and Donald Yerxa have argued that the term is the focus of a quarrel within the Christian community, but that "the quarrel over methodological naturalism and theistic science does not engage the average scientist in a lab coat ..." (3)

Partisans in favor of the concept include Richard H. Bube, Denis Lamoureux, Howard Van Till, Keith B. Miller, and Robert O'Connor. (4) Opponents include Alvin Plantinga, J. P. Moreland, and Stephen C. Meyer. (5) This group of opponents reject the concept primarily because it leaves no room for direct action by God in science. They would like for science to include ultimate or final causality as well as immediate causality. They write as though the suggestion that science should only deal with immediate causality represents a modern innovation, when science, as Francis Bacon (1561-1626) defined it in Novum Organum, does not deal in final causes.

Technically speaking, the word "science," coming from the Latin word scientia, originally meant "knowledge." When the medieval scholastics spoke of theology as the "queen of the sciences," they spoke of all the realms of knowledge. The meaning of words, however, changes over time under the influence of the forces of culture, including different philosophical understandings. For Plato, sensory knowledge was merely opinion, but for Aristotle it was the surest form of knowledge. Since the Middle Ages, under the influence of Aristotle's view of knowledge filtered through the thought of Thomas Aquinas, the word "science" has come to mean sensory knowledge. Since the nineteenth century, the word has been used for what was once known as natural philosophy. Over time, natural philosophy came to be called natural science, and natural science was shortened simply to science.

Science does not exclude other forms of knowledge, but science is only qualified to describe what it can learn through sensory observation. Even if God acts directly in the physical world, science is left to describe what it can physically observe, not what the scientist believes to be the ultimate cause of the observation. People may believe that God knitted them together in their mothers' wombs on the authority of Scripture. To be science, however, it is necessary to describe what that knitting looks like physically in the body. Oddly, those who debate the value of the term do so without reference to de Vries, the article in which he introduced the rationale for the term, or Bacon and his scientific method. Instead, they speak vaguely of "science."

Perhaps of equal significance with those who disagree about the term are those who discuss the issues related to methodological naturalism, but who do not use the term.

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From Scientific Method to Methodological Naturalism: The Evolution of an Idea
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