For an assignment, my philosophy of science professor had us read Phillip E. Johnson's "Evolution as Dogma: The Establishment of Naturalism" and then answer the following question:

What is Johnson's support for asserting that evolutionists who claim that God did not intervene in the creation of the variety of biological species are making a philosophical claim?

While he does initially argue that the evidence in support of evolution is minimal, Johnson focuses his attack on naturalism, which is, of course, the root of the sort of evolution he is arguing against. Throughout the paper, he repeatedly refers to the fact that the theory of evolution would crumble if naturalism were called into question because it would supposedly allow room for the possibility of a creator. This led me to ask myself: is science, which evolution is presented as a manifestation of, inherently naturalistic? Can science be science exclusive of naturalism? Perhaps as a result of the very dogmatism Johnson describes, I simply cannot imagine science without the properties of naturalism.

  • 1
    does any scientific theory disallow the concept of a "creator"? i don't see how. it's not a scientific question.
    – user20153
    Mar 5 '17 at 21:16
  • after all every scientific theory would "crumble" if naturalism were "called into question".
    – user20153
    Mar 5 '17 at 21:18
  • 1
    @mobileink That was just a reiteration of Johnson's argument. He misinterprets the inherent dismissal of supernatural intervention for the purpose of understanding the natural world as implicitly denying the existence of a god. Frankly, I don't think either make any claims about God unless you look at ontological naturalism, which is something completely different.
    – Jordan
    Mar 6 '17 at 7:14
  • Could you explain what Johnson means by "naturalism"? Since belief in evolution can (and does) easily coexist with belief in God I do not see how it is "the root of the sort of evolution" on the usual meaning of the word. And what do you mean by science being "inherently naturalistic"? Other than discarding the "supernatural", which is circular for defining "natural".
    – Conifold
    Mar 6 '17 at 19:20
  • @mobileink ... and science can therefore not disprove it. Thank you for making that clear. Jul 9 '17 at 17:47

There are a number of strategies that scientists and philosophers of science have used to avoid (or at least decrease) tensions between religion and scientific naturalism. You can read more about several of these in the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on religion and science.

As a preliminary point, it's important to recognize that the conflict thesis — the idea that there's a deep and longstanding tension between religion and science — was a specifically nineteenth century development, and it's generally not regarded as good history by historians of science today. (More on Wikipedia.)

That said, here are five argument strategies to avoid the apparent conflict, in no particular order.

  1. Non-Overlapping Magisteria, or NOMA. The term comes from a Stephen Jay Gould essay, and his book Rock of Ages. The basic idea is that science and religion have different spheres, topics, or domains — the "magisteria" — and that these domains don't overlap. The purpose of science is to describe the observable, natural world; the purpose of religion is to provide moral guidance on how we live our lives; and the two domains are logically irrelevant to each other, so that claims in one domain simply can't conflict with claims in the other. (More on Wikipedia.)

  2. Constructive empiricism and other varieties of scientific anti-realism. Constructive empiricism comes from philosopher of science Bas van Fraassen, who is Catholic. On van Fraassen's view, scientific models don't need to be literally true; instead, they only need to accurately represent the parts of the world that we can observe. (More on the Stanford Encyclopedia.) Then, if we understand the long history of life as something that we can't observe, models of evolution by natural selection don't need to be literally true about that history. Instead, they only need to accurately represent the parts of the history of life that we can observe. (To be clear, I don't think van Fraassen himself would endorse this argument, because I think he would say that this history is something that we could observe in principle. My point here is that someone could avoid conflict between religion and science by taking this kind of approach.)

  3. The Doctrine of Two Books was important in medieval and Renaissance Christianity. (I learned about it writing a paper on Galileo as an undergraduate, and it's also relevant to understanding how Aquinas reconciled Christianity with Aristotle's more "naturalistic" philosophy.) The idea here is that God has "written" two books, Scripture and Nature, and that humans are called to study and learn from both books. So far this might sound like NOMA. The key difference is that, according to the doctrine, the two books are relevant to each other, and cannot conflict. Apparent conflicts are the product of limited human understanding, and so reconciling the apparent conflicts is an important task for scholars of both books. Importantly, the books don't relate to each other hierarchically. It's not that Scripture takes priority over Nature. A theologian's understanding of Scripture should be informed by a scientific understanding of Nature, and a scientist's understanding of Nature should be informed by a theological understanding of Scripture. Both theologians and scientists are working to understand God's two books, and they should work together. I believe something like this is the position of the Catholic Church today. Of course, all of this assumes that Scripture is a reliable source of knowledge — though your question more or less assumes a religious scientist. (I haven't been able to find a good source of more information. This Wikipedia article goes into a little more detail, but is incomplete and messy. This essay by Ernan McMullin, a philosopher of physics and Catholic priest, works through a highly qualified version of this strategy. McMullin's essay was also published in this anthology.)

  4. Another strategy is to offer what I've heard called a guided interpretation of evolution. The basic idea is that God sets up evolutionary scenarios that, as a result of the operation of natural selection and other evolutionary forces, produce the results that God desires. One way to think about this is that, using divine foreknowledge, the Big Bang was configured precisely to result in humans here on Earth (or whatever the desired goal happens to be). Another, somewhat different idea is that God has occasionally (or maybe more often) "nudged" history — killing off this organism, ensuring that this other one survives and reproduces — to result in humans here on Earth (or whatever the desired goal happens to be). I believe something like this was the view of Asa Gray, a botanist who corresponded with Darwin. (There are some scattered remarks on Gray in the Stanford Encylopedia entry.)

  5. The final argument strategy that I'll discuss here is to understand scientific naturalism as methodological naturalism rather than ontological naturalism. Roughly the idea is that science proceeds under the assumptions of naturalism (that there are no supernatural entities or causal influences, that the only forms of causation are efficient-material, that observation provides the only way of gaining knowledge about natural causal relations, and so on), but that there's no deep commitment to these assumptions being true. From a methodological naturalist perspective, there might very well be supernatural stuff; but the assumption is that any supernatural stuff that might exist can be ignored for the purposes of investigating the natural stuff. Somewhat like NOMA, methodological naturalism regards religion as a "separate domain"; but it allows for the possibility that this domain is about much more than just morality. Unlike scientific anti-realism, methodological naturalism is compatible with scientific claims being true — so long as they're understood to be true about nature and not "supernature." (This Stanford Encyclopedia entry is mostly about naturalism and philosophy, but in many places the discussion of methodological naturalism also applies to science.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.