Thursday, September 15, 2005

Methodological and Metaphysical Naturalism

More discussion of the creation/evolution debate. Here is part one.

Once again, I'm going to resist the urge to go into massive detail. This is as brief an overview of the subject as I think is possible. For brevity, I'm going to refer to the whole debate as the "origins debate."

The origins debate (at least, the version we are all familiar with) has been a heated and contentious issue in North America for nearly a century. As with most issues, I think the two sides are just talking past each other; unable to properly understand the concerns and issues on either side. And some of the time, people don't even understand their own side. So I'm going to explain both sides as best I can.

A bit part of the problem is our culture's obsession with science. "Science," whatever the hell that means, is held up as an ultimate arbiter of truth. "That is unscientific!" is one of the worst slanders you can bring against an idea. This is just the attack both opponents and proponents of Evolution bring against their foes. All this is often done without any thought as to what science actually is.

So what is science? By even asking the question, I'm starting to wade out of my depth. But from what little reading I have done, I will offer this definition. Science is the systematic study of the natural world.

Two things must be clarified here: one, science is not a body of knowledge. It is not a group of facts or ideas. It is a method. This method, depending on various factors, will lead to constant changes and revisions in the resultant body of knowledge.

The second point is mostly for emphasis: science studies the natural world. Only the natural world - the mechanistic interactions of matter and energy. This leads to another distinction which must be made: methdological naturalism vs. metaphysical naturalism.

I have already described methodological naturalism (MethN) - the systematic study of the mechanistic interactions of matter and energy. This is the root of science; it is what allows us to make a hundred tons of steel fly in the air, and it allows us to fight disease, and it allows us to build a body of knowledge about our planet's natural history. MethN, by definition, can only ever describe matter and energy. It is necessarily silent on all other topics.

Metaphysical naturalism (MetaN) is something else. This is the view that interactions of matter and energy make up the whole of reality (I left out the word "mechanistic," because I am unsure if that characterization would be correct). Only that which can be percieved by the senses exists. This point of view stands opposed to any possibility of the supernatural. I would define "supernatural" as an aspect of reality not based in matter or energy.

Much of the hot air in the origins debate flows from the confusion between MetaN and MethN. What little I have read of Richard Dawkins, for example, suggests to me that he is a commited metaphysical naturalist - and that he confuses this with MethN. On the other side, the folks at Answers in Genesis (AiG) reject the very idea of MethN. They inists that all "true science" will support the supernatural claims of the Bible, especially Genesis.

AiG is an organization of Scientific Young Earth Creationists (SYEC). SYECers are a specific sub-branch of Young Earth Creationists (YEC), who believe that the Earth is roughly 6000 - 10 000 (sometimes 35 000) years old. All of physical reality was created in 6 days, as literally described in Genesis. SYECers ardently believe this can be reconciled with scientific observation. SYECers are a young group, finding their original in the 20th century; as I said in part one, most geologists in the 19th century were Christians ministers, and they were all old Earthers. SYEC only sprang up when Evolution left American acadamia and hit high schools.

Remember what I said about our culture's obsession with science? Both the views of Dawkins and the SYECers are examples of this. Because "science" is seen as being our most powerful tool for describing reality, it is assumed that science is capable of describing all of reality. Science, for Dawkins and other MetaNers, is capable of ruling out the existence of the supernatural. SYECers believe exactly the same thing - that science is capable of commenting on the nature of the supernatural. Only from the other side of the coin.

This confusion is part of the reason YECers reject Evolution so adamantly. Because they share the MetaN's belief that science can adequately engage with all aspects of reality, they see Evolution as a threat to their own metaphysics. Which it is. MetaNers can build a well rounded metaphysics with an ontology, an epistemology, and an ethics. All of which are obviously not Christian.

This is the usefulness of distinguishing between MethN and MetaN. MethN is not divorced from metaphysics - it must have certain epistemological assumptions - but it is indebted to no ideology, no ethics, not even a particular ontology. MethN can - and does so with an unassailable degree of certainty - tell us about our past and our present. But it can not tell us what the good life is, and it can never comment on whether the supernatural exists or does not exist. It can not tell me who I am, and it can not tell you who you are. MethN shows us how to translate the world into one of our many number systems, but some things will always be lost in translation.

A supernatural metaphysics has nothing to fear from methodological naturalism. None of this, of course, explains why MethN is important or why we should attempt to preserve it. That'll be next time.

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