Steven D. Schafersman,
Department of Geology,
Miami University

Science is a way of knowing, a method that discovers reliable knowledge about nature. There are many ways of knowing, they compete with each other to provide knowledge about nature, and humans choose which knowledge claims to believe from among the many available. Ways of knowing necessarily rely on philosophies to comprehend reality and justify their beliefs and methods. Science is the way of knowing that uses empiricism, rationalism, and skepticism to discover and corroborate its knowledge claims; for these philosophies to be coherent and true, naturalism must also be true. Other ways of knowing use revelation, authoritarianism, subjectivism, mysticism, obscurantism, spiritualism, psychicism, transcendentalism, emotionalism, and sophism; for many of these philosophies to be true, supernaturalism must also be true.

Naturalism, the idea that reality is formed solely by natural processes, consists solely of natural beings and objects, and governed solely by natural laws, is a philosophy that developed as science developed. Modern science did not, at first, rely upon naturalism. Galileo fully believed that the physical laws he discovered were created by God as part of the universe, and Isaac Newton could ascribe physical phenomena to supernatural control if a natural explanation was not known and could not be conceived. The origin and functioning of the universe, solar system, Earth, plant and animal species, and humans were routinely ascribed to supernatural processes by legitimate scientists well into the nineteenth century, as the histories of catastrophism and creationism clearly reveal. Following the examples of Galileo and Newton, however, scientists such as Laplace, Hutton, Lyell, Darwin, and Huxley slowly and sequentially attempted to explain the origin and functioning of these real objects and beings solely by natural explanations. Naturalism as a necessary part of science thus developed gradually as science developed gradually with the practice and understanding of scientists; appreciation of the hypothetico-deductive method and empirical testing of hypotheses requires naturalism, since supernatural claims cannot be tested. Holdout scientists who persisted in supernatural explanations were gradually abandoned intellectually by their students and colleagues, and they eventually died with no successors. There was never a single moment or event when supernaturalism was evicted from the structure of science and naturalism locked in. However, by the twentieth century, supernaturalism had been methodologically eliminated and science came to be identified with naturalism; the philosophy of naturalism then became formalized in the 1930s and 1940s, chiefly in the United States.

Naturalism, however, is not merely a methodological strategy in science; it is part and parcel of empiricism, rationalism, and skepticism, and thus is an ontological necessity in the understanding and practice of science. The alternative to naturalism is supernaturalism; unless naturalism is true and supernaturalism false, empiricism--comprehending reality solely by sensory experience--is not sufficient to comprehend reality; rationalism--the use of logic in reasoning--is not sufficient to understand reality; and skepticism--the questioning and evaluation of one's knowledge system and beliefs--is not sufficient to arrive at reliable knowledge. Naturalism implies a unity and regularity to nature, that nature's reality can be objectively understood, without which the pursuit of scientific knowledge would be absurd. But naturalism is not an assumption or presupposition on the part of scientists, a common claim by critics; it is, instead, a hypothesis that has been tested and repeatedly corroborated, and so become reliable knowledge.

The scientific enterprise fails without naturalism, which is why naturalism is attacked by proponents of anti-science. Defenders of science who hold the idea that methodological naturalism is decoupled from ontological (``philosophical'') naturalism in the day-to-day practice of scientists--and that this is the real reason that scientists ignore the supernatural, so there is really no reason for supernaturalists (and by implication, theists) to object to science--are mistaken. Their mistake is made because they confound naturalism and materialism; while the former is absolutely essential for science to work, the latter is indeed sometimes decoupled into methodological and ontological materialism, especially by scientists who are theists. Science can be conducted without belief in materialism, but not without belief in naturalism. Theist scientists, who believe in the supernatural if their deity is a supernatural one, must engage in tremendous logical contortions to practice science, but they may not be aware of that fact, such is the nature of the human mind and its capacity for self-deception.

Pseudoscientists recognize this in their heart of hearts. In their zealous attempts to legitimitize their political and religious ideologies by parodying science, they explicitly parade the many "evidences" for their doctrines; they use specious arguments and out-of-context quotations to rationalize their beliefs; they believe that by attacking their scientific opponents they are manifesting skepticism. They explicitly omit supernatural explanations in materials meant for a general readership that expects scientific explanations. Just as science has philosophers of science, pseudoscience has philosophers of pseudoscience. Creationists have attempted to support "intelligent design" and "sudden appearance" explanations for the origin of species as naturalistic and scientific alternatives to evolution. The philosophers of pseudoscience know, as do most informed observers, that such descriptions are euphemisms for ``creationism,'' a supernatural and religious explanation, so these philosophers have vainly attempted to construct a science in which naturalism is not a requirement. They have attacked naturalism as a ``dogma,'' and have insisted that the supernatural be allowed as an explanation. Their writings justifying this argument are filled with the same misunderstandings, mistakes, and sophistry as their pseudoscientist colleagues, so the success of their enterprise depends on the scientific illiteracy and emotional sentiment--that is, by exploiting the lack of critical thinking--of their current and anticipated followers. Pseudoscience is a political movement designed to gain power, influence, and money to support the personal religious and political ideologies of its proponents by confusing the public and subverting the truth, and thus is not only anti-scientific, but immoral.

Copyright © Steven D. Schafersman