Sean Carroll has an interesting piece at The Stone on the New York Times site, pointing out that the theory of cosmic inflation was motivated by naturalism. In other words, it was motivated by the desire to find a natural explanation for something that didn’t look natural, such as the apparent fine tuning necessary for the universe to be flat, among other things.
But it reminds me that science and naturalism go hand in hand. The first known scientists, the pre-socratic philosophers beginning with Thales, were motivated to find natural explanations for phenomena. Their methods wouldn’t pass muster as science today, and many of their ideas were wildly off the mark (although Thales was able to predict lunar eclipses), but it was the approach of looking for natural explanations that set them apart from their predecessors, who had generally invoked gods or spirits as explanations.
As Carroll points out in his article, the assumption that there must be a natural explanation has been an enormously productive one throughout the history of science. Any attempt to work outside of this assumption has generally failed to provide the reliable knowledge that science is known for.
It’s one of the reasons teleology, trying to figure out what everything’s purpose is in the universe, was abandoned by scientists centuries ago. At the beginning of the scientific revolution, philosophers often insisted that it wasn’t enough to understand how a phenomena behaved or how it came about. One had to understand what its purpose was in the overall scheme of things.
As science came into its own, it quickly became apparent that teleology wasn’t a productive endeavor. There simply wasn’t any way to test ideas of what those purposes might be, to acquire reliable knowledge of them.
Does this mean that science is inherently non-theistic? I think it is. Not in a manner that denies the existence of gods, but in a manner that simply fails to find them, or any other supernatural concept, useful as explanations. (Although there are definitely conceptions of gods, some would say naive ones, whose existence is contradicted by scientific evidence.) This isn’t philosophical naturalism, but methodological naturalism, the working assumption that only looking for natural explanations is productive.
This raises the issue of what is natural, as opposed to what is supernatural? And that turns out to be tricky to nail down if you think about it. If the natural is what occurs in nature, that is following the laws of nature, then the supernatural must be what occurs outside of the laws of nature. Of course, if we don’t understand the laws of electricity, then lightening looks supernatural (as it once did).
Ultimately though, the supernatural is what we hear about in stories that are not consistent with the observed laws of nature. It is violations of those laws that occur in an untestable manner. For this reason, it’s often stated that the supernatural is outside the scope of science.
As a skeptic, I don’t think the supernatural exists, but I have to admit I can’t prove that it doesn’t. Of course, I also can’t prove that on a certain date in a certain location, 1+1=3 wasn’t true for a five minute period. Such an occurrence is outside the scope of mathematics, it is supermathematical, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to seriously consider that it might have happened.
But this is a philosophical position I hold, not a scientific one. Scientifically we can say that lightening strikes follow the laws of electricity, and that there is no evidence of them targeting evil doers. But scientifically we can’t say that there is no force that targets evil doers in some manner, only that there’s no evidence for it.
So, strictly speaking, science doesn’t demand philosophical naturalism, the idea that nature is all there is. But it does limit its scope to naturalistic explanations. And that has been a huge component of its success.
- Unity of Science (theleatherlibraryblog.com)
- Ionian/Eleatic Philosophy and the importance of Logos in the Polis- The Beggining of Greek Philosophy. (eggflip.wordpress.com)
- Unexplained terminology Explained: ‘Paranormal’ versus ‘Supernatural’ (idoubtit.wordpress.com)
- Towards a Naturalized Ontology: How to Arrive at a Naturalized Ontology (cameronafzal.wordpress.com)