Methodological naturalism without metaphysical naturalism

A student of mine pointed out to me this recent New York Times article. It's about Marcus Ross, who recently received his Ph.D. in geology, writing a perfectly normal geology dissertation about what happened 10-15 million years ago -- except this guy is actually a young earth creationist, that is, he believes the Earth is no more than 10,000 years old, based on a literal interpretation of Genesis. Ross says he works within one "paradigm" when writing his dissertation and working within the geological community, but he does not accept this paradigm for all contexts.

A number of interesting things could be said about this (and many are in the NYT article). I wanted to highlight one of the more philosophical aspects of this case. In the context of the debate over Intelligent Design, the anti-evolutionists often say 'Darwinism is a religious belief (perhaps atheism in disguise).' Many pro-evolutionists respond by drawing a distinction between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism, where only the second is anything close to a religious belief. Here's a rough characterization:

(Methodological Naturalism) Scientific explanations cannot appeal to supernatural causes.

(Metaphysical Naturalism) There are no supernatural causes.

The pro-evolutionists say that science only requires methodological naturalism, not the metaphysical naturalism that is pretty close to atheism. So one could be a methodological naturalist, but need not be a metaphysical naturalist (though presumably not vice versa). One natural response the anti-evolutionist could make is that this distinction is contrived, artificial, or otherwise objectionable.

Well, now Marcus Ross is a striking real-life example of someone who is a methodological naturalist without being a metaphysical naturalist. You might think this would make the pro-evolutionists happy -- but as the NYT article makes clear, not all of them are. There are different reasons for this dissatisfaction (e.g., the young earth creationists can now claim this bona fide geologist is on their side). But one thing that perhaps drives the dissatisfaction is that, to quote the student who showed me this article, this person's beliefs seem "crazy". His mental life seems fragmented or segregated in the extreme.

Somewhat ironically, this case appears to serve as a particularly vivid example in favor of the anti-evolutionists' claim that the distinction between methodological and metaphysical naturalism is bogus. On the other hand, in defense of the distinction, perhaps it is not this geologist's metaphysical supernaturalism that makes his stance seem odd, but rather his further beliefs about the particular, specific nature of the divine causes, viz., creating the Earth 10,000 years ago or so.


Kevin Winters said...

I'm not so sure that this is so "crazy": many will present extensive arguments "as if" something were the case that they do not believe. We do it in philosophy all the time. We need to realize that there is a distinction between what a methodology demands and what might be the case as we can rightly and meaningfully discuss both.

I see this in the whole Dawkins/Dennet issue: they are not disproving theism, but merely pointing out the consequences of their naturalistic views which themselves have not been proven. 'Science' doesn't disprove theism any more than 'theism' disproves science; they are both ideologies with incompatible assumptions, but without conclusive proof. It's like a variation of the schoolyard taunt: "My ideology is better than your ideology!"

N. N. said...

It seems to me that methodological naturalism, together with any sort of positivism, cannot be distinguished from metaphysical naturalism. That is, if one says that scientific explanations cannot appeal to supernatural causes, and that the only legitimate explanations are scientific (broadly construed), then it follows that the only legitimate explanations are those that exclude supernatural causes.

On the other hand, the geologist who qua scientist argues that the earth is old, but qua believer holds that the earth is young, relies on faith, i.e., 'evidence of things not seen.'

Anonymous said...

Any person who can reconcile two different ages of the earth (with the degree of difference in the millions) or, for that matter, any two mutually exclusive pieces of information, (say, 'this comment is generated on a computer' as opposed to 'this comment is written in pencil') has some mental problem, which, for want of a more apt term, one can deem to be 'crazy.' And this characterization, I submit, has let off Marcus Ross lightly, for, the more honest descriptive ought to have been not merely crazy, but 'dangerously crazy'.

For, anyone (particularly a PhD in the field) who can compartmentalize these two ages of the world in one head and see no problem in doing so can just about contort his intellect to accommodate any sort of bizarre notion. If this man were afforded a position of power (not a stretch of the imagination, given the current administration's general penchant for kooks and science-averse administration hacks, amongst other maladroits), that fake mushroom cloud we were sold the war on, could yet become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, yes, 'crazy' is just about right.

Why Marcus Ross’s case is particularly striking is because it is a full-blown example of the dangers of paying lip-service to any unsubstantiated belief. The degree of his insanity is very high hence he has a visibility factor. But, consider for a moment, that there are countless people on earth today, engaging in, or utilizing, in varying degrees, science or rational thought in their everyday lives: people who, as stock-brokers, car-salesmen, scientists, students, etc would be as hard-nosed, rational, even cynical in evaluating stocks, car prices, what have you, as any self-respecting atheist is in evaluating god-claims, but who (the former set) would still be closet- or mini-Marcuses when it came time to the harboring or sustenance of their own untenable beliefs.

So, the only differences I see between them and Marcus is that Marcus is blatantly unabashed by his madness. The others, while having some symptoms of the Marcus malady, do not have full-blown Marcus mania.

For that I suppose, one could, uh, what...thank god for small mercies?

N. N. said...

So, he is of two minds about the age of the earth, and therefore, he may be responsible for nuclear war? I seem to have missed something.

Kevin Winters said...

What is wrong with claiming that, according to the 'rules' of science (whatever those are), the earth is however many years old. But since God is not bound by the laws of nature (according to traditional theology), his divine intervension made the earth 10,000 years ago but with the scientific data that would make it look like it is older. The sciences are allowed their data, but divine intervention allows for the reality of a young earth.

Even if I don't agree with this, it is not "crazy."

Anonymous said...

To N. N.:

To be of two minds connotes indecision of the variety should-I wear-this-hat or-that-one,at best.

Writng a science based thesis on the age of the earth and then being sure of the earth's age to be some 10,000 years old, on the other hand, I think, is not to be "of two minds."


Anonymous said...

To Kevin Winters: you write "... but since God is not bound by..."

Question: why may God be considered a given?

You go on "...divine intervention allows for a reality of a young earth"

If god is a given then "divine intervention" is possible. So, the 'givenness' of god is crucial to your argument. But then, if god is a given, why, then, any argument becomes possible -- why even bother to make a case?


N. N. said...


Rather than debate correct usage, I'll give you the phrase 'of two minds.' It still seems that your allusion to the Bush administration is an ad hominem criticism that, if generalized, vilifies all belief in revelation.

God is a given for the believer. The believer does have reasons for his belief, but none that are scientific. Is this a requirement for belief?

Anonymous said...

Ad Hominem? Pertaining to whom, Bush or Marcus? Even if it were both, I would never go to that length when the merits of their cases (demerits, rather) amply suffice in doing my job for me?

Re "god is a given for the believer": nothing new. The problem/s is/are a consequence of precisely that unproven given.

Re "is this a requirement for belief?" If by "is this a requirement for belief" you mean "science," then, going by the sense of your question, apparently not, although the world would be safer if people in power did take stock of their beliefs and required even a nominal calibration of those beliefs with rational thought.

Kevin Winters said...

I never said that God was a given nor, even as a theist (though 'unorthodox'), do I think that is necessary. All that I said was that Marcus was being consistent in his beliefs insofar as he could play both parts, have the two parts coherently seperated, and not be "crazy." Working out the consequences of a scientific worldview is not the same as fully accepting said worldview (or thinking that it is the whole story).

Anonymous said...

To Kevin Winters:

Yes, you did not say "god is a given" verbatim; but, you clearly assumed god as a given in your second sentence, and I quote: "But since God is not bound by the laws of nature (according to traditional theology)...."

You go on, refering to this god you have assumed to exist, and on whom your entire argument is predicated, and again, I quote: "his divine intervension made the earth 10,000 years ago but with the scientific data that would make it look like it is older...."

If the above sentences of yours are not assuming god (god, a given) then I do not know what sentence/statement would qualify as having taken god as a given.


N. N. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
N. N. said...

To Marcus, of course.

To whom and by what means is the believer to prove his belief in God? To a third person and scientifically? Then his belief is unproven and perhaps unprovable. But why should science be the standard here?

There are many justified beliefs that cannot be proven, and more still that cannot be 'proven' scientifically. They are justified for all that.

'The world would be safer if people in power did take stock of their beliefs and required even a nominal calibration of those beliefs with rational thought.'

Really? The world would be safer? I presume that you believe such a world would be populated by more atheists. If you think such a world would be safer, I'd suggest you read up on the deeds of Stalin and Mao.

And what makes a belief 'rational'? Is the belief that our cognitive faculties are reliable a rational belief?

Kevin Winters said...


No, in fact I did not say that God is a given. I even qualified my statement in relation to "traditional theology," meaning that there are other views that both include and exclude God's existence or involvement. Why are you focusing on this miniscule point?

Let me restate my argument: it is very common in philosophy and physics to argue 'as if' something were true. Doing so does not demand or in any way entail an acceptance of the view that is argued. This is what Ross is doing: he is arguing the consequences of a particular view that he apparently feels is accurate within a limited domain. However, since he also accepts the existence of a God who can create ex nihilo, he can coherently argued that while (1) scientific analysis shows an old earth, (2) God created the world that way a shorter time ago. This is entirely coherent; there is not a single contradiction between these two assertions. If you think otherwise, please argue it and get off the irrelevant topic of God's givenness (or lack thereof).

Clark Goble said...

To add Zend, it seems to me you are demanding that to be rational one must only accept beliefs with either proof or at least a strong level of justification. I'm not sure that's necessary.

Certainly you or I might reject this guy's conception of God. But that says nothing about whether he can be rational. It seems that to critique his rationality one must bring in additional issues such as the nature of this "deceit" by God and how he resolves them, his hermeneutics and reason for them and so forth. He may well be irrational but there seems no logical demand on the face of it that he is.

Anonymous said...

To N. N.:

Proving one's belief in God or for that matter, in X, Y, or Z is not difficult, nor is it the question.

I (or anyone for that matter) would have no problem in taking the believer's word that he/she does indeed believe in god (whatever that means).

The question is whether one's believing in the existence of some entity has any bearing on its existence or otherwise. Tooth fairies are also believed in....

You say "There are many justified beliefs that cannot be proven, and more still that cannot be 'proven' scientifically. They are justified for all that."

What makes a belief "justified"? And who does the justification? Any examples, please?

You go on, "I presume that you believe such a world would be populated by more atheists."

Why do you presume that? Is it because, then, these convenient straw-atheists could easily be delivered a one-to knockdown by any self-respecting god-loving atheist-bashing believer? Come now, surely you do not suggest that all atheists are bad, etc; why, it would be just as silly of me to suggest that all believers are good. Come now.

And besides, why presume (yes, still on presumptions) an either-or believer-atheist dichotomy? The agnostics might feel offended, if left out, no?

Moreover, and while (still) on the subject of presumptions, might I ask you why you presume my non-familiarity with the deeds of Stalin and Mao or for that matter the inquisition, holy wars, etc? Please, may we do without the condescension? It does not behoove us.

Finally you ask, "and what makes a belief rational?"

I don't know; you tell me!

To answer your last question: Yes, to the extent that the earth is understood by science and cognition to be millions of years older than what Marcus believes it to be presumably when he is not wearing his rational, thinking cap.


Anonymous said...

To Kevin Winters:

Now the statement is qualified and traditional theology is what gives rise to the givenness of god. Why does traditional theology have that prerogative? Even if it does, may it not be asked why it does?

Sure there are a myriad views that "both include and exclude god's existence.” The idea is to sift, to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were. Views abound, and so do beliefs. That may be the case as far as starting points go, but, as I said in my first post, if belief in god is taken to be a given by believer directly, or through the auspices of traditional theology, then anything is possible and reasoned argument becomes futile.

Again, please refer to my earlier post. If some premise is a given, then, any argument becomes possible. If one starts off from a contradiction, anything becomes provable.

Yes, I think otherwise, and I have been arguing it, but with little success.

And no, I do not think at all that the topic of god's givenness (or lack thereof) is irrelevant to the topic -- it is the topic. It may not be a comfortable topic for those predisposed to god's givenness, or those who believe in god but might diffident wearing their belief stoutly on their academic sleeves as Marcus does (he’s got guts, I’ll give him that) but, it is sadly, indeed the topic.


N. N. said...


Lest this discussion turn contentious (and I do not want it to), I'll refrain from further presumption.

Now, there are many beliefs that we all hold which cannot be proven by evidence, e.g., that our cognitive faculties are reliable, that events have causes, that I am currently typing on the computer, etc. Nevertheless, we are justified in holding them; they are rational. Plantinga calls such beliefs properly basic, and argues that the belief in the existence of God is included among them.

It seems to me that Plantinga is on to something, but whatever the case, it is obvious that many common beliefs cannot be proven (empirically or otherwise). But that's not necessarily a strike against them.

Anonymous said...

To Clark Goble:

So what is/are the criterion/criteria for accepting a belief, according to you? Does anything go? Is X's son both 10 and 70 years old (at one and the same time) depending on when/where X is asked the question?

You: "Certainly you or I might reject this guy's conception of God. But that says nothing about whether he can be rational.

Not at all. His conception of god is secondary. His belief in the existence of god preceeds that conception and that is what I am talking about. His belief in god is irrational. Any belief in the non-sensible, supernatural, etc is irrational.


N. N. said...

'Any belief in the non-sensible, supernatural, etc. is irrational.'

Good. That's the straightforward statement of positivism that I was expecting (but I didn't want to make any presumptions).

What about this example: Quine believed in the existence of sets because he didn't think mathematics could get on without them. Sets, for Quine, were a platonic sort of entity, and they were certainly non-sensible. Was Quine's an irrational belief?

Anonymous said...

The question is not so much whether Quine's belief in the existence of sets is rational or otherwise.

The question is, whether he would have believed in them in the morning when he went to Harvard and taught logic, and then, not believed in their "platonic sort of necessity" when he came home to his second wife and four children in the evening?

Besides, the very necessity of believing in a starting point indicates the absence of one. If there were a starting point, why, then, would one need to conjure up god, or the set, or the platonic ideal?

Of course, the premise is that one needs such a supernatural starting point.

And, of course, as you might have as earlier, presciently perceived, I fail to see why.


Clark Goble said...

So what is/are the criterion/criteria for accepting a belief, according to you?

I'm pretty much a Peircean and roughly follow his views in "The Fixity of Belief." The idea that we continue inquire and that which we can't doubt we ought believe. I'd discussed this in a more religious context a while ago.

In this view the problem with fundamentalists like the person being discussed is that they do not inquire about the things they assume. That process of inquiry, especially of foundations, is key.

justin said...

I think methodological naturalism and antirealism about science probably go together fine.

Imagine a particle physicist. If she's like most of the particle physicists that I know, she's probably a methodological naturalist and an antirealist. So as a physicist she believes that our best scientific theory posits all sorts of subatomic particles, but that these entities need not exist as more than numerical entities. Moreover she thinks these subatomic particles cause certain things to happen at a higher level of explanation (say, the chemical or biological level).

Now suppose that she is a theist. So she believes that God exists as the creator and sustainer of the world. Furthermore, she believes he sustains the world by causing certain things to happen at a low explanatory level. So for her, the cause of our biology has something to do with God's will.

This may seen inconsitent, but with an understanding of antirealism, it strikes me as a consistent (although maybe wrong) position. And although there are a lot more antirealists about physics than say, geology or evolutionary biology, maybe that's just because the physicists have read their van Fraassen carefully.

Anonymous said...

Great delineation between "methodological" and "metaphysical." That describes my site to a T.

But the whole "differentiation" of terms is problematic. As I posted 8.5.08, "Richard Carrier, in defending metaphysical naturalism, says we must reject the 'conclusion that naturalism must abandon materialism and realism about material objects and other minds.'"

I had to wonder what "other minds" he was talking about and why.
But materialistic naturalism is sometimes contrasted with metaphysical naturalism."

I like the simplicity of your explanation. Thanks
Curtis Edward Clark