Naturalism and (Non-)Teleological Science: A Way to Resolve the Demarcation Problem Between Science and Religion

Keith Abney

Judge Overtonıs opinion in McLean v. Arkansas (1982) and its ensuing discussion by the philosophers of science Larry Laudan and Michael Ruse provides an instructive example of how not to solve the problems of demarcating science from theology. Overton follows Ruse in sharply demarcating science from religion, but in ways which render much of what we call Œscienceı non-scientific. Laudanıs response simply accepts Creationism as a science, albeit a Œbadı one. Laudanıs influential non realist naturalism makes such judgments even more problematic, for a Œbadı science may become a Œgoodı one if the aims or methods of science change sufficiently. In particular, the case reveals a chasm between those who automatically debunk the potential legitimacy of Œsupernaturalı causation and those who do not - even among naturalists!

As a result, I wish to use this case as a springboard for the advocacy of a terminological change in the debate over naturalism, one which I believe will help render more perspicuous the nature of the disputes. I thus suggest that we divide the sciences by their causal explanatory structure, and in particular their ability to abstract from the causal power of agency (whether human or divine) in their proper explanations. The sciences will then be demarcated into the Œteleologicalı and the Œnon-teleologicalı, rather than the more usual division between Œsocialı and Œnaturalı. Using this conceptual framework will help elucidate the mistakes that Ruse, Overton, and Laudan all make, and enable a new (and hopefully more profitable) way of understanding the relationship between Œnaturalismı and theistic inquiry. In the end, I attempt to show that the Œnon-teleologicalı sciences forego, in principle, any possibility of supernatural causation in their proper explanations, and hence leave no room for most interesting varieties of theism. If we take these sciences and their methods as constitutive of Œnaturalismı, then it can be sharply demarcated from theism. However, if Œteleologicalı sciences are taken seriously (e.g., ecology), then science and theology will have to be demarcated in a more careful fashion, if indeed they can be demarcated at all. Insofar as a science has an irreducible residue of agency in its proper explanations, a Œtheistic scienceı remains a possibility, not an oxymoron.

Copyright © Keith Abney