Science on Trial: Exploring the Rationality of Methodological Naturalism

Robert O'Connor

In a recently edited volume, entitled The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence of an Intelligent Designer, J. P. Moreland chides Christians for what he takes as their failure to understand the proper integration of their faith with secular disciplines, particularly the natural sciences, and for capitulating too readily to the ``question-begging Procrustean legislation'' imposed by the secular practitioners of their craft. Moreland, with support primarily from Stephen C. Meyer and William A. Dembski, proposes an alternative and distinctively christian approach to the sciences. Accordingly, the central doctrine of creation can and should ``enter into the very fabric of the practice of science and the utilization of scientific methodology.''

Their argument for ``theistic science'' focuses primarily on the tactical or strategic proscription against direct reference to divine agency. The central idea behind this proposal holds that, since the Christian knows that God occasionally directly interacts with the natural created order, a christian scientist can, and should, specifically incorporate that belief into scientific accounts, thus transforming a rather attenuated ``natural science'' into a fully informed ``theistic science.'' Having at her disposal this larger stock of true beliefs, the theist has available additional explanatory resources. As such, the theistic scientist has a greater prospect for achieving her goal of gaining full and proper understanding of creation, and will quite simply become a better scientist by unapologetically drawing upon the full array of potential explanatory accounts. The main obstacle on this royal road to truth is methodological naturalism (MN), which maintains that ``only natural objects and forces can be referred to in scientific explanations.'' Thus, arguing that this principle of exclusivity is irrational, conspiratorial and a positive impediment to truth, these authors reject this constraint. Rather, they endorse the inclusivity principle, that is, the claim that explanations in terms of the direct and immediate activity of a divine agent may constitute a proper part of natural science. Taking his cue from the ``postmodern'' critique of the exclusivity of ``enlightenment rationality,'' Meyer in particular calls for the scientific community to grant equal consideration to divine action as comprising a legitimate scientific explanation. Repudiating MN, the theistic scientist ought to actively develop scientific accounts which as readily appeal to divine agency as to natural mechanisms.

In the present essay I will closely scrutinize this proposal. As I see it, the recommendation takes two forms: (i) it is positively irrational for the Christian engaged in natural science to remain committed to MN, and (ii) because science has no intrinsic individuating features, it is irrational for the broader scientific community to continue to resist appeal to immediate divine agency as a proper part of natural science. Specifically, I will argue that the first of these theses is mistaken, and the second is ill-advised. This position does a disservice to christian scholarship by advocating a position that is ill-motivated, unnecessary and potentially damaging to christian interests. The disciplinary distinction, as determined in part by MN, is well-grounded, intrinsically valuable, and, when properly understood, a critical component of christian inquiry. I will conclude that permitting direct reference to divine agency in natural science severely undermines the overall quest for truth. Thus, if there is a distinctively ``christian way of doing science,'' it does not come by repudiating MN.

Copyright © Robert O'Connor