Is Science the Same as Naturalism

This is an article about one of the most fundamental issues of all.  Frank unpacks for us the basic argument which argues for what he terms ‘metaphysical naturalism’.  It will certainly cause many questions – so feel free to ASK  (using the box below)….

Is Science the same as Naturalism?

Dr Frank Stootman

A common assumption amongst many scientists and in the community is that science is another word for the philosophy of naturalism. Naturalism is simply the idea that the explanation of natural phenomena should always be done in terms of other natural phenomena without invoking it as the action of ‘gods’ or ‘God’. Thus, clouds are formed because water vapour condenses in a layer of air in which the temperature has reached 0°C (32°F). Rain falls when the condensation forms droplets. Lightning is a high voltage electrical discharge between clouds and the Earth. Accidents are simply the colliding of natural space-time events which may or may not have unfortunate consequences.

Richard Dawkins puts it rather bleakly in his book ‘River out of Eden’,

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we would expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference… DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music” (Dawkins, R., Science Masters, Harper Collins Publishers, p133, 1995)

There seems little doubt that we live in a real world in which natural events are interconnected and can be explained causally in terms of each other. Science has used the consistency of this to form a picture of the physical world we live in. The success of its methodological naturalism is a remarkable achievement which provides a coherent picture of what is. The impact of knowing has had spin-off effects on the technological development of society from which we all benefit. Moreover, science has had impact on philosophical assumptions and development since the Enlightenment. I’m thinking particularly of Newton’s gravitational model of the 17th century which developed into mechanistic view of the universe – a giant machine. This is to be contrasted with the 20th century understanding of quantum physics in which the universe is no longer a machine because quantum ‘weirdness’ rules at the small end of town. Thus, science has contributed (particularly amongst the intellectuals in each generation) to the changing view on the role of the Judaeo-Christian God in society. From a providential God to a God who provides the rational order, to a non-imminent God, and finally to a God who does not exist.

Based on the success of science and its explanatory power, it is easy to be seduced into thinking that its methodological naturalism is both necessary and sufficient. That would be morphing it into metaphysical naturalism. For science cannot give answers to the metaphysics found in the physical universe. By this I mean, good reasons for the structure, function, organisation, information, and fine tuning of the universe. Why is the universe rational and lawful allowing science to be a useful enterprise? Why is there structure, function, organisation, and fine tuning in the physical universe? This is not the role of methodological naturalism and to that extent it is not sufficient.

Admittedly, the argument for the extent of metaphysical naturalism is incomplete because inference is necessary, but it can nevertheless be differentiated from methodological naturalism.  What is does do, however, is to halt the flow of a history which has concluded, in the West, that for all practical purposes there is no God. Metaphysical naturalism is a kind of natural theology with limitations to be sure. But it can open the door to an exploration of the existence of God which has important flow-on effects to human flourishing. Questions such as ‘Who am I?’, or ‘How do I live well?’, or ‘Do I have cosmic significance?’  are answered by an understanding of the significance of the God who is revealed in the Jewish-Christian Scripture. 

What is needed is for the West to regain this knowledge because so much of what we hold to be dear today – tolerance, inclusion, kindness, compassion, justice, and human rights have their roots in the legacy of the knowledge of God, who is both revealed in Scripture and pointed to by natural theology.

Dr Frank Stootman

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