Tuesday, March 09, 2004

On Methodological Naturalism...

In my recent polemic that anyone who holds to the evolutionary paradigm and also holds to some form of morality is guilty of being logically inconsistent I touched on the area of how the philosophical implications of methodological naturalism (MN) invalidate the theistic in theistic evolution. Needless to say, my comments ruffled more than a few feathers after I wrote about said implications of attempting to believe that God is the author of naturalistic evolution. The criticisms were very similar to those I received when I criticized the Post Modern Christian movement of doing the very same thing – being logically inconsistent. With regards to my approach, I sought the advice of a couple of fellow bloggers whom I respect, and whose opinions I trust. Basically, they brought up two points: 1) I need to tone down my rhetoric and, 2) I need to improve my argument that if theistic evolutionists follow the tenets of methodological naturalism, then they are unwittingly attaching themselves to the philosophical consequences of metaphysical naturalism. My intent here is not to denigrate anyone but to point out not only the inconsistencies in their worldview(s) but the implications as well. Ron Nash said, in Faith & Reason, “Can the people who profess that world-view in theory also practice what they believe in their daily lives? Can the person consistently live the system he professes?” (emphasis in original) It is in that context that I proceed. In re-thinking the issue in question I decided to take another look at theistic evolution by referring to the book Three Views on Creation and Evolution, edited by Moreland & Reynolds, in which proponents of young-earth creationism, old-earth creationism, and theistic evolution debate their views. Howard J. Van Till represented the theistic evolution viewpoint. Van Till makes a point of separating the definition of atheistic naturalism (AN) from MN:
In his book The Blind Watchmaker, biologist Richard Dawkins asserted that, “although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” I find that statement entirely unwarranted, nothing more than rhetorical bluster. I would say the exact opposite. If the universe is in fact sufficiently gifted to make evolutionary development possible, and if the outcome of that development includes creatures like us who are able to reflect on what it all signifies, then nothing less than the creativity, generosity, and blessing of God could suffice as the intellectually and spiritually satisfying explanation. Dawkins, along with all other preachers of naturalism, has nothing to offer. In his blusterous rhetoric there is nothing for the Christian to fear.
As a fellow Christian I agree with his assessment that AN has nothing to offer. But the criticism he is likely to run into from an atheist is the simple question, Why? Indeed, he is fully aware of this for he writes:
What is the most common rhetorical challenge hurled at Christians by the preachers of evolutionary naturalism? The essence of the most common challenge is this: If there are no gaps in the formational economy of the universe, then what need is there for a creator? The particular way of expressing it will vary from writer to writer, but this is, I believe, the central element in evolutionary naturalism’s attack on belief in a creator. (emphasis in original)
This is how he addresses it:
…I think, …that the most appropriate and effective response to the naturalistic challenge is to say that if there are no gaps in the formational economy of the universe, then that truly remarkable state of affairs should lead a person to recognize the universe as being a thoughtfully conceptualized and fully gifted creation that has been given its being by an unfathomably creative and generous creator. Without the historic doctrine of creation as its foundation, the robust formational economy principle would represent and incredibly improbable state of affairs. Thus, acknowledging the credibility of that principle provides no evidence against belief in a creator as the giver of being. On the contrary, it provides evidence in favor of that belief. By the “creation’s formational economy” I mean a particular set of resources and capabilities with which the creation has been gifted by God, those resources and capabilities that constitute its being. More specifically, imagine making a list of all of the creation’s resources and capabilities that contribute to its ability to organize or transform itself into a diversity of physical structures and life-forms. Think for a moment, then, about how robust the universe’s formational economy must be in order that something like cosmic or biotic evolution could be a genuine possibility. How could it be that not only does a “something” exist in place of nothing, but the “something” that exists is gifted with a set of formational capabilities so astoundingly robust that it is able to have actualized the whole array of its structures and life-forms in time? Could anything less than the creativity and generosity of God suffice? Would it actually make sense to posit, as do the preachers of naturalism, that a universe just happens to exist and that it just happens to have an astoundingly robust formational economy? Does naturalism provide anything even closely resembling an explanation? Is it not now abundantly clear that Christian belief in a creator provides a vastly superior framework in which to find the scientific concept of evolution to be a credible possibility?
It appears that Van Till has painted himself into a corner with his approach towards MN. The way I understand it, his argument rests on the foundation of his feeling that fully gifted creation makes sense. He thereby relies on the subjective to explain the objective. He appears to be stating that the fully gifted creationist appeals to the intricately fine-tuned workings of the universe not as objective evidence of a divine creator, per se, but as some sort of catalyst that drives a reaction of belief in such a divine creator. That he thinks the improbability of the universe having a robust formational economy, all on its own, points towards a creator is strikingly similar to the theory of ID or, shudder, old-earth creationism. There is, in fact, a fine line drawn between what the fully gifted creationist is positing and what the special creationist posits. Yet the logical consequences on either side of this line are separated by a vast canyon that ultimately pits one worldview against another. For on the fully gifted creation side there remains the troublesome question of Why should I believe that there is a divine creator?” The fully gifted creationist believes that the question is best answered by a subjective look at the wonders of the cosmos and then concluding, “How could it be any other way?” Unfortunately there is the issue that ideas have consequences. Anyone who is sincerely examining the tenets of MN must address all its implications, not only within its explanatory realm, but beyond as well. Some adherents to MN posit that it has nothing to say about metaphysical aspects within our world. There is some truth to that statement in that MN does not attempt to explain the metaphysical, but these adherents seemingly miss the point that the tenets of one discipline may affect those of another. That said, anyone questioning the tenets of the fully gifted creation scenario must ask some very tough questions with regards to how MN and the fully gifted scenario are married. Consider the following dialogue between a skeptic (s) and a fully gifted creationist (fgc) in which I write, not to establish a straw-man but, to illustrate my understanding of the topic:
s: “If the natural realm has all the ingredients with which to establish the world around us, and if we are unable to ascertain whether God has intervened, then we are left with a world in which God is unnecessary. Why should I believe in a God?” fgc: “Because the world would be meaningless without Him.” “Yes it would… of course, that assumes that the concept of meaninglessness is valid. If we see that the cosmos is fully capable of producing organization, then why shouldn’t my feelings be a part of that self-generated organization as well?” “But what about the improbability of all this organization happening by chance?” “Improbable or impossible?” “Incredibly improbable.” “So we’re either very lucky or there is a God.” “Exactly my point.” “But you’ve said that the cosmos is fully gifted to produce organization.” “Yes, fully gifted by God.” “But isn’t that arguing in a circle?” “How so?” “You’ve stated that the cosmos is fully gifted by God but that we cannot empirically ascertain any evidence of God fully gifting the cosmos. You then state that the fact that the cosmos is fully gifted is evidence that God fully gifted it.” “No I’ve stated that when one considers that the cosmos is fully gifted to produce organization, despite the improbability of this occurring, then how could it be anything other than God?” “It can because that is precisely the way we observe it to be. Besides, that sounds a lot like the ID argument.” “Well the ID argument relies on special creation by God to intervene in the natural order.” “At least that would give me some type of basis with which to place my faith in God. As it is all you’ve shown me is that there’s no way we can ascertain God’s existence, save for our feeling lousy if we don’t.” “How could “something” exist instead of nothing and how could that something have the capability to produce organization unless it was gifted with it by a divine creator?” “Well I guess we’re back to how I feel about my perception of reality. Tell you what, if it makes you feel better you can certainly go ahead and keep your god. But I’ve read about how he’s treated people and I don’t particularly care for that. I’ll just find my own god, thank you.”
What the fully gifted position tends towards is relegating God to a purely subjective belief rather than an objective reality. How could we ever rationally know that this God exists if we have no way of ascertaining evidence of His existence? Certainly one could choose to believe in a God, but if such a belief is ultimately grounded on mere emotion, then the other fellow’s belief is just as good as yours. Neither belief is right or wrong, for they are both simply mere opinions. Further, by choosing to believe in God simply to feel better runs the risk of coming to grips with the objective fact that one is believing in a fantasy, not unlike believing in Santa Claus. If one wishes to be true to reality, then believing in a fantasy simply to feel better is tantamount to being dishonest with oneself. Better to be fulfilled with the reality of meaninglessness then to fool oneself with the fantasy of false hope. Of course, if the supernatural does exist, then the whole ballgame changes. Adherents to MN state that it only has the power to explain the natural realm and that it makes no truth claims with regards to the supernatural. This is essentially a true statement. Yet it is not the claim of explanatory power with regards to MN that I have a quarrel with, but the philosophical implications that flow from it. Consider if one were to attempt to introduce the supernatural into the equation with regards to the analysis of scientific data. Fully gifted creationists, who certainly believe that the supernatural exists, may cry foul in that they believe that God has chosen not to express Himself in that manner with regards to the natural realm. What about adherents to MN? How would they respond? If I understand their position correctly, they would cry foul and claim that even though the supernatural might exist, MN has no power with which to analyze it. But is MN truly that limited? Consider Ken Miller’s statement regarding the miracle of Jesus’ virgin birth that, “there is the matter of Jesus’s Y-chromosome to account for. But that is the point. Miracles, by definition, do not have to make scientific sense.” What if a sample of Jesus’ DNA was found and analyzed? That the evidence is from a purported supernatural event is irrelevant; that the data may make no scientific sense is also irrelevant, for data is simply that – data. Would the data point towards a supernatural occurrence? Could it? Could there be other examples? Of course. What if evidence surfaced that indicated various species of animals appeared on earth in a short enough time to effectively make their appearance instantaneous. Disregard the standard arguments against this occurrence for the moment, for the point I am making is that if the evidence, as analyzed by MN, pointed towards such an event, what would the adherent to MN conclude? It is at this point that adherents to MN must lay their cards on the table. If they truly believe that MN only explains the natural realm, while still allowing the possibility for the supernatural to exist, then they must allow free inquiry into the detection of the effects of the supernatural upon the natural realm. If they refuse, then we can rightfully charge them with holding to the tenets of atheistic naturalism (AN). Adherents to AN make the assertion that nature is all there is – period. Their line of reasoning accepts the contention that nature can and did produce the organization we see today without any guidance or kick-off from a divine being. In addition to this they admit, as our skeptic friend above did, that life is ultimately meaningless but, unlike our skeptic friend, they embrace the meaninglessness of our reality as simply the way it is. Indeed, by their reasoning, our capacity to reason was derived from the mere consequences of determinism and chance. When MN becomes AN it ceases to imply metaphysical naturalism, and actually becomes metaphysical naturalism. The preachers of AN are those who have taken the logical implications of methodological naturalism and followed its path into metaphysical naturalism. They are the ones who will tend to view anyone who claims to hold on to theistic evolution as the weak-kneed sycophants. Indeed, in an e-mail discussion with Bill Dembski this past week, he clarified for me that he was “attributing that view to people like Dawkins for holding theistic evolutionists in contempt,” and that he himself was not referring to theistic evolutionists in that way. In summary we need to understand that there are many facets to complex subjects such as creationism, evolution, theistic evolution, methodological naturalism, and metaphysical naturalism. Subtle differences in the way terms are used may foster confusion between participants in a debate. At the same time, proceeding ahead with blinders on, content to ignore inter-discipline implications, only entrenches preconceived notions which may or may not be true.

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