Big Bang

Dr. Ray Bohlin provides an overview of some philosophical problems with theistic evolution, particularly methodological naturalism.

Methodological Naturalism as a Ground Rule of Science

In this article I review the philosophical critique of theistic evolution from the book Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique.{1} I’m starting with the chapter in this section by Steve Meyer and Paul Nelson titled, “Should Theistic Evolution Depend on Methodological Naturalism?” Now I admit that’s quite a mouthful. What is methodological naturalism?

Well, if you simply break the word down, you can see that it is first about a method, therefore “methodological.” The second word is “naturalism.” The philosophy of naturalism maintains that only nature exists. There is no supernatural, no spirit or spirits, only matter and energy.

Therefore, methodological naturalism is a method that only considers matter and energy. This refers for many to science. So methodological naturalism is a method of science that only considers natural explanations. As Meyer and Nelson put it, “Methodological naturalism asserts that, to qualify as science, a theory must explain by strictly physical or material—that is, non-intelligent or non-purposive—causes.”

Theistic evolutionists collectively assert that this is how science must be done. No purpose or intelligence allowed. Strangely though, Meyer and Nelson quote atheist Sean Carroll saying, “Science should be about determining truth, whatever truth that may be—natural, supernatural, or otherwise.” In addition, they quote theistic evolutionist Darrell Falk admitting that natural selection and mutation do not explain the origin of animal form. Yet he also affirms there is a natural explanation waiting out there. Why?

Meyer and Nelson explain, “Because of his commitment to methodological naturalism, Darrell Falk will not consider any theory (such as intelligent design) that invokes ‘creative intelligence.’” Instead, he waits for an adequate and fully naturalistic theory of evolution. But is this reasonable?

This is my third article critiquing Theistic Evolution. You can find the first two here and here. I simply ask that our brothers and sisters who accept Theistic Evolution, look again with unbiased eyes.

Why Methodological Naturalism?

Above, I said that science should be about determining truth, wherever the evidence leads. Methodological naturalism limits that search for truth in science to only natural explanations. So why this restriction?

Some theistic evolutionists like Nancy Murphy are quoted as saying that, “For better or worse, we have inherited a view of science as methodologically atheistic.” This limit by history over the last 150 years hardly seems adequate. Others, however, insist that methodological naturalism is supported by independent and objective criteria. These are often referred to as Demarcation criteria, such as:

1. Must be based on observable data and/or
2. Must be testable or falsifiable and/or
3. Must offer explanations based on natural law.

These criteria will be able to distinguish genuine science from pseudoscience, metaphysics, or religion.

I’m going to need to examine these criteria to see if they provide what is needed—basically a principled philosophical or methodological reason for supporting methodological naturalism. Can these criteria enable scientists or philosophers to do science in a normative way? Do the criteria justifiably exclude, a priori, some theories as unscientific or pseudoscientific, despite what the evidence may show? If so, then it may be perfectly justifiable to exclude from scientific consideration theories of the origin and development of life that invoke creative intelligence, and it may also be justifiable to require that theories refer only to materialistic causes or natural processes just as many theistic evolutionists assume.

BUT—and this is a big BUT—what if these demarcation criteria are neither independent nor objective? Is there already an inherent bias in these criteria and are they applicable in all situations? The answer is a resounding NO!

Demarcation Criteria Work, Except When They Don’t

Earlier, I discussed if methodological naturalism is necessary for science, and most evolutionists and theistic evolutionists think that it is. There are what are called demarcation criteria that are supposed to distinguish science from pseudoscience and religious theories.

There was a significant and famous federal court case challenging a new law passed in Arkansas back in 1980, that required creationism to be taught alongside evolution in public schools. Federal Judge William Overton struck down the Arkansas law and used many of these demarcation criteria as his reasoning. His reasoning was that creationism was not science based on these criteria.

First, he said, virtually verbatim from the brief submitted from the ACLU, creationism was not guided by natural law. Second, it was not explained by reference to natural law. Third, creationism was not testable against the empirical world. And fourth, Creationism was not falsifiable. On the surface judge Overton’s decision was reasonable.

Therefore, despite whatever scientific evidence creationists were able to offer for their claims, it simply wasn’t science. No matter what the evidence!

But within months of the ruling being issued, it was blistered by philosophers of science. They explained that many theories throughout science in the past and present would not qualify as science according to Overton’s decision.

But as Meyer and Nelson point out, Newton and Galileo posed no natural law to govern gravitational phenomena. Yet, Newton’s universal law of gravitation described and predicted gravity precisely, but according to the criteria, it’s not science. Even Darwin’s theory of natural selection knew nothing of the genetics it would eventually refer to. Were both Newton and Darwin unscientific? No one would claim that today. So, judge Overton greatly

Demarcation Criteria Could Exclude Both ID and Evolution

In the previous section I began discussing what are called demarcation criteria that are supposed to distinguish between science and non-science. I showed that Newton’s gravitational ideas were not based on scientific law. He had no idea what caused gravity. Another criterion is that science must be testable. But as philosopher of science Larry Laudan showed after the trial, creationists routinely offered geological tests for their catastrophic flood geology.

Another major criterion was that a scientific hypothesis must be observable. When discussing intelligent design, of course, the designer is not observable. So, ID is not science. Meyer and Nelson point out however, that this is applying the criterion far too rigidly. After all, we still cannot see gravitational waves, we have never observed an electron, we have never observed a mammalian carnivore evolving into a wolf or a lion, or anything even remotely this close in relationship.

But evolutionists can suggest evolutionary events that could give rise to the wolf and the lion, and we can very precisely predict and describe gravitational fields even though we can’t observe gravity itself, only the results.

Appropriately, while we may not observe the designing mind behind the information rich content of living things, we are very acquainted with the results of intelligence. Our only model today for the origin of complex specified information (or language) is the mind. Our minds interpret and produce language every hour of our waking day; even in our sleep, we dream—again information.

So, if we use the criterion of observability too rigidly, then both evolution and ID are not science, but if we apply the criterion more realistically, then both materialistic and non-materialistic theories can qualify as science.

Why Methodological Naturalism Sinks Theistic Evolution

I will now close my discussion of the philosophical objections to theistic evolution by discussing an intriguingly-titled chapter, How to Lose a Battleship: Why Methodological Naturalism Sinks Theistic Evolution.

Remember that Methodological Naturalism is defined by asserting that science, properly understood, can only suggest natural causes. Author Stephen Dilley reminds us of what has been known for decades; that Darwin’s Origin of Species was written as a scientific answer to its main competitor, special creation. However, in the fourth edition, Darwin also claimed that special creation is not science.

But if you use scientific evidence to discredit a theory as false, it must be science, otherwise, scientific evidence is useless. But when Darwin also claimed that special creation was not science, then his scientific arguments against special creation should have been taken out of what he called “the long argument.”

But even modern-day theistic evolutionists do much the same thing. On the one hand, they use methodological naturalism to contend that ID is not science, but then they offer scientific evidence that ID is false using scientific arguments. If ID is not science, then scientific evidence is useless; if it is science, then use scientific evidence to demonstrate that it is incorrect science.

Francis Collins is perhaps the most recognizable proponent of theistic evolution. In his book, The Language of God, he uses theological language to show evolution as being true and ID as false. Basically, he reasons that the design of the mammalian eye is less than ideal. That is what you would expect, he says, from evolution, but not design. Evolution will cobble something together that works, whereas you would expect the Designer to design it perfectly. This argument has been around for some time and simply is not true, but you can see that Collins uses theological language to exclude design.

If evolution is science, then why resort to what we think God would do, to argue in favor of evolution? Either way, Dilley shows, theistic evolutionists would be wise to discard methodological naturalism. I agree.

1. Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique by J. P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer et al. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017).

©2024 Probe Ministries

Raymond G. Bohlin is Vice President at Probe Ministries. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois (B.S., zoology), North Texas State University (M.S., population genetics), and the University of Texas at Dallas (M.S., Ph.D., molecular biology). He is the co-author of the book The Natural Limits to Biological Change, served as general editor of Creation, Evolution and Modern Science, co-author of Basic Questions on Genetics, Stem Cell Research and Cloning (The BioBasics Series), and has published numerous journal articles. Dr. Bohlin was named a Research Fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture in 1997, 2000 and 2012.

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