Methodological Naturalism (A brief guide)

In this guide, we will discuss Methodological Naturalism, when philosophy meets science, what is the role of intuition, Methodological Naturalism vs Ontological Naturalism, Arguments and problems of Intrinsic Methodological Naturalism and Methodological Naturalism and Theism

Methodological Naturalism

“Methodological naturalism is not a “doctrine” but an essential aspect of the methodology of science, the study of the natural universe. If one believes that natural laws and theories based on them will not suffice to solve the problems attacked by scientists – that supernatural and thus nonscientific principles must be invoked from time to time – then one cannot have the confidence in scientific methodology that is a prerequisite to doing science”, according to Lawrence Lerner from chem.tufts.edu.

The term ‘naturalism’ doesn’t have a precise meaning in contemporary philosophy but important representatives such as John Dewey or Ernest Nagel attempted to close the gap between philosophy and science. They argued that reality is exhausted by nature which meant there was no possibility of considering supernatural phenomena as existent or part of reality. However, the scientific method is said to be needed to investigate all the areas of reality, including those concerning the human spirit.

Methodological Naturalism (A brief guide)

Philosophy meets science

As we have indicated, methodological naturalists believe philosophy and science are engaged and should go hand in hand since both seem to pursue similar ends and use similar methods. But what does it mean when we talk about having a methodological attitude when establishing a relationship between philosophy and science? Well, we have to mention how philosophy and science seem to have a concern to establish synthetic knowledge from the natural world and to achieve this after further investigation.

Philosophers and theorists acknowledge that there are also differences between philosophy and science but they will say that they are rather shallow. For instance, philosophical questions are usually said to have a sense of generality. As indicated in plato.stanford.edu, “Where scientists think about viruses, electrons or stars, philosophers think about spatiotemporal continuants, properties, causation or time, categories that structure all our thinking about the natural world. Another common feature of philosophical questions is that they involve some kind of theoretical tangle.”

Subsequently, this entails that our way of thinking can lead to conflicting results or conclusions. In order to progress, we need to try to get rid of previous assumptions that may difficult the process of investigation. 

A priori intuition

Philosophers who say they believe the conceptual analysis is believed to defend analytic a priori knowledge while others don’t. However, on many occasions, some philosophers seem to describe their view of conceptual analysis as a matter of articulating synthetic claims and assess them against a posteriori facts or evidence. Robert Brandon is a clear example of this type of view of conceptual analysis. 

The role of intuition

The idea of intuitions seems to be a ‘hot topic’ and a topic of debate in philosophy. They can be analytic in the sense that they contain no substantial information or they can be synthetic, in which case they seem to be less reliable. For many philosophers, philosophy should get rid of the concept of intuition and focus only on the proper observation of evidence instead of giving space to assumptions since they can be doubtful.

However, this doesn’t seem to case at all. In fact, intuitions are said to play an important role in science as well as philosophy. For instance, if we think back to important thought experiments performed by Galileo or Einstein where intuition seems to have the same function as in philosophy. An individual thinks about a possible scenario or situation in their mind and they make intuitive judgements about what could happen in that particular case. 

Methodological Naturalism vs Ontological Naturalism

Methodological Naturalism must be differentiated from Ontological Naturalism, which argues that only natural ‘stuff’ exists. However, it is important to get clear on the nature of Methodological Naturalism in terms of the limitations it places on the sciences and here where it seems useful to make the differentiation between what philosopher Martin Beaudry calls Intrinsic Methodological Naturalism and Provisional Methodological Naturalism.

Intrinsic Methodological Naturalism is the point of view which states that the Methodological Naturalism of science is an intrinsic feature to science but science by definition is limited to natural causes, events and explanations. 

Methodological Naturalism (A brief guide)

On the other hand, we have Provisional Methodological Naturalism which is only provisionally part of the sciences. This perspective on the nature of the relationship between methodological naturalism and the sciences is merely contingently in place. It has been informed by the history of science, on this view supernatural explanations are not rejected by definition, rather, they are rejected because of their dismal performance historically.  

Arguments and problems of Intrinsic Methodological Naturalism 

The lawful regularity argument says that, if the idea of supernatural interference were allowed in science, the experimental practice would be impossible. This is said to be a common argument but some philosophers don’t support this argument.

For instance, Martin Boundry gives two main responses to these arguments. First, it is rather easy where we could test the efficacy of prayer in contrast to what we actually find, say in this scenario it consistently seems to have the desired outcome. However, let’s say it only does this when these prayers were sanctioned by the catholic church or that they only would work if someone ill was baptized by a Catholic priest.   

Even though it is possible that before investigating we could have noticed that prayer did have an effect and that it was likely supernatural in its nature. There is not a good reason to think that this would make the entire rest of science completely impossible. Secondly, the argument boils down to nothing more than the argument from the consequences. Even if supernatural forces acting on the natural world, would prove not useful for all supernatural investigations.  

Methodological Naturalism and Theism

Most scientists believe it is not possible to mix or combine methodological naturalism and Theism or supernatural philosophical belief systems. However, it is not uncommon to find individuals that believe both in the scientific method and how we can get to know things while they also believe there is a spiritual side of mankind that exists and can be observed (i.e. God, spirits, ghosts).

Moreover, some scientists believe that science and religion won’t necessarily need to be like water and oil. But others do have defined roles for each, assigning each an equal but different role in human understanding. As indicated in rationalwiki.org, “There are still many prominent modern-day proponents of this “dual path” within the sciences; most notable are probably Ken Miller and his book Finding Darwin’s God and Francis Collins’ The Language of God.”

Why is this blog about Methodological Naturalism important?

This blog about Methodological Naturalism is important because it allows people to understand how someone sees and understands the world through methodological naturalism. Just as we discussed, it is not a ‘doctrine’ but an essential aspect of the methodology of science, the study of the natural universe. When we talk about a naturalistic approach or when we think about the term naturalism we now know it doesn’t have a precise meaning in contemporary philosophy but it attempts to close the gap between philosophy and science.

We also discussed the difference there is between intrinsic methodological naturalism and provisional methodological naturalism where Intrinsic Methodological Naturalism is the point of view which states that the Methodological Naturalism of science is an intrinsic feature to science but science by definition is limited to natural causes, events and explanations. In contrast, we have Provisional Methodological Naturalism which is only provisionally part of the sciences. Finally, we can also get into our own conclusions on whether science should be combined with religion or supernatural phenomena or not.

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Methodological Naturalism

What is scientific naturalism?

Scientific naturalism argues that all objects and events are part of nature, they belong to the world of time and space. Consequently, everything, including the mental realm is subject to scientific study. For most philosophers, when talking about naturalism we have to talk about the scientific method and how we can only get to know the natural world through their filter.

What is the theory of naturalism?

The theory of naturalism argues that the scientific method relates to philosophy by affirming that all organisms, beings and events in the universe are natural, no matter their inherent character. Consequently, all the knowledge in the universe falls within the pale of scientific investigation.

What is distinctive of naturalistic approaches to philosophy?

The naturalistic approach to philosophical problems argues that they are tractable through the methods of empirical sciences or at least, without distinctively a priori project of theorizing. It helps to leave aside those a priori assumptions and use scientific methodology to get to know the world.

Who is the founder of naturalism?

The founder of the naturalism literary movement is said to be the French author Émile Zola. It can be traced back to the nineteenth century, similar to literary realism in its rejection of Romanticism. However, it is said to be distinct in its embrace of determinism, detachment, scientific objectivism and social commentary. 

Does naturalism believe in God?

Naturalism argues that there are no spirits, deities or anything else besides the natural world. Moreover, poetic naturalism emphasizes that there are many ways of talking about the natural world. Since God cannot go through the filters of the sciences then it doesn’t exist for naturalism.

What are the basic principles of naturalism?

The principles of Naturalism include mass, energy, and other physical and chemical properties accepted by the scientific community. Moreover, we can find that there is no room for believing in spirits, deities or ghosts since they are not considered ‘real’ and that they don’t have a ‘purpose’ in nature.

References 

Lerner, L (n.d.) Methodological Naturalism vs Ontological or Philosophical Naturalism. Retrieved from chem.tufts.edu.

Youtube.com: “Methodological Naturalism?”

Rationalwiki.com: “Methodological naturalism”

Plato.stanford.edu: “Naturalism”

Juanita Agboola

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.