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A Philosophical Premise of 'Naturalism'?
By Mark Isaak
Posted October 3, 2002
What science is based on
Intelligent Design in practice
The main objection some prominent intelligent design (ID) creationists
have against evolution is that it is unjustifiably based on the
philosophical underpinning of naturalism. "The Neo-Darwinian conclusion
about the process of evolution is based on a premise of metaphysical
naturalism: that there are no causes except matter in mindless motion."
 And "The metaphysical assumptions of scientific materialism
are not themselves established by scientific investigation, but rather are
held a priori as unchallengeable and usually unexamined components of the
'scientific' worldview."  This leads to the claim that
evolution excludes God , and that it is only fair to teach
an alternative (intelligent design) that allows supernatural influence.
This essay, however, will show that the above claims are false. Although
science does make some assumptions that might be considered naturalistic
in a sense, the assumptions that science is based on are not as
restrictive as creationists claim. Furthermore, the proponents of
intelligent design make exactly the same assumptions in
their own work. Finally, we will see that the complaint about naturalism
is applied unfairly to discredit only those parts of science that
naturalism's critics oppose on ideological grounds.
We first must clarify (or try to do so) what is meant by "naturalism."
Naturalism is the philosophy that states that explanations for all
phenomena must be in terms of natural causes. Some usages of
"materialism" are similar, and the two terms are sometimes used
interchangeably. The main point that naturalism's critics object to is
exclusion of the supernatural. Some people distinguish between
philosophical naturalism, which states that natural causes are all there
are, and methodological naturalism, which says merely that natural causes
are all that is available for science to work with. In either case, the
definition invites the question of what "nature" means. A complete
definition would have to explain how to distinguish whether something is
natural or supernatural. I have never seen that problem addressed
satisfactorily, and I will not attempt to do so here. I will use the
terms "nature" and "supernatural" in their usual informal senses.
"Supernatural" refers to certain inexplicable or inscrutable phenomena
that are traditionally given that label, and nature refers to everything
else in the universe.
Naturalism gets associated with science because natural explanations have
such a good track record for explaining observed phenomena. To date,
natural explanations have been determined for very, very many previously
unknown areas, and supernatural explanations have been determined for
none. When exploring another unknown area, the possibility of a natural
explanation is the way to bet. Researchers bet that way routinely, and as
a result the human race has benefitted with incredible advances in
medicine, agriculture, electronics, materials science, and more.
Supernatural explanations, on the other hand, have led nowhere.
Indeed, many supernatural explanations are rejected not because they are
supernatural but because they cannot or do not lead anywhere. It is
possible to come up with any number of possible explanations for anything
-- lost socks could be caused by extradimensional vortices which our
observations prevent from forming; hiccups could be caused by evil spirits
inside us trying to escape; stock market fluctuations could be caused by
the secret manipulations of powerful extraterrestrials. Scientists reject
such claims on the grounds of parsimony. All of those claims are
possible, but they require adding complicated entities which there is no
adequate evidence for. To make matters worse, the nature of those
entities effectively prevents investigation of them, and the impossibility
of investigation prevents us from learning anything new about them. We
cannot conclude that any of those explanations are wrong. But from a
scientific standpoint, they are worse than wrong; they are useless.
The naturalism that anti-evolutionists most object to is philosophical
naturalism, which insists on natural explanations even outside science --
i.e., that "nature is all there is." Many scientists, however, do not
accept philosophical naturalism either. Some are staunch believers in God
or other supernaturalism, including major contributors to evolutionary
theory, such as Alfred Russel Wallace, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and Ronald
Fisher, and active researchers and defenders of evolution today, such as
Kenneth R. Miller and Francisco J. Ayala (see also ). In the
United States, by one poll, roughly 40% of scientists believe in an active
personal God, and there are surely many more who believe in a God fitting
a definition less restrictive than the one used in the poll . These scientists would hardly work to support a
philosophical position that they are steadfastly opposed to. Right away,
then, we see that the main complaint about naturalism is trivially untrue.
Critics of naturalism (I will call them ID advocates for short, although
some other creationists make the same criticisms) still deny such obvious
facts, though. One method of denial is to claim that the God that their
opponents believe in doesn't count. For example: "Naturalistic evolution
is consistent with the existence of 'God' only if by that term we mean no
more than a first cause which retires from further activity after
establishing the laws of nature and setting the natural mechanism in
motion."  To those of us who know a few evolutionary
biologists personally, such assertions are beyond ludicrous. There are
likely some people who believe as Johnson describes, but there are many
others for whom God is a personal, ever-present force in their life.
Several denominations of Christianity and other religions, including
Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Jews, see no conflict between
God and evolution.  This could hardly be the case if a
naturalism inherent in evolution was inimical to theistic religion.
The other common method of denial is to focus attention on the handful of
scientists who do support philosophical naturalism, such as William
Provine and Richard Dawkins. These scientists, however, do not speak for
all of science. Indeed, no scientists do. Part of science's strength is
its diversity. Since scientists of many diverse religions are studying
evolution, any religious bias one scientist tries to insert into it will
soon be rejected by another. Moreover, philosophers of science, who have
no stake in actual theories, also scrutinize science for unwarranted
assumptions. With these watchdogs, we can be confident that the theory in
the end will be virtually free of religious bias. Likewise for various
philosophical, political, and cultural views. Some scientists will
disagree with some of the things I say below about the supernatural. But
the fact remains that there are many scientists who accept supernatural
views in their religion -- some who even see their religion as motivating
and inspiring their science -- and who are completely accepted in the
field of science. Once one understands the basic requirements of science
(more on this below), this should not be surprising. Focusing only on the
most materialist scientists and disregarding the rest is a propaganda
ploy, not an argument.
Most scientists would admit that there will always be phenomena that have
not been explained. The more we learn, the more areas of ignorance we
uncover. The wise person, when looking at these unknown areas, will say
simply, "I don't know." The ID advocates, on the other hand, see the
unknowns as openings for the supernatural, perhaps even evidence for it.
This is the god of the gaps. Many people, including religious scientists,
reject the god of the gaps for purely theological reasons, reasons that
have nothing to do with naturalism. For example, they see such a position
as opposing a belief in a God that is active in all creation; and, as new
discoveries fill the gaps in which God is placed, they see the
god-of-the-gaps as undermining a reason to believe in God. [8, 9]
Far from denying the supernatural, they are denying that
human ignorance is a basis for worship.
Spirituality expresses itself differently to different people. Some
people see their God denied by the theory of evolution. Others see God in
the operation of nature, inseparable from the theory of evolution; they
see a need for blatantly supernatural evidence of God as effectively
denying God. Others have a variety of entirely different views. This
range of views exists among scientists as well as the population at large.
One may fail to understand all these views, but to pretend they don't
exist is the height of insensitivity. A single spiritual view will not
apply to everyone, and trying to impose one will benefit nobody but the
A related claim is that adherence to naturalism rules out, a
priori, the possibility of detecting design . This claim
also is easily seen to be utterly false, and not just because scientists
needn't adhere to naturalism. Even when assuming naturalism, detecting
design is obviously possible. One example comes from Carl Sagan, who
suggests that design can be inferred from a sequence of bits counting out
the first few prime numbers. In fact, this is a favorite example of one
of intelligent design's main advocates . Carl Sagan
certainly didn't assume exceptions to naturalism when he proposed that
indication of design. (It is worth noting that actual SETI researchers
look for an entirely different kind of evidence. They aren't looking for
any pattern in the signal except a narrow bandwidth, which they consider a
likely indicator based on what people would do. )
Evidence could conceivably be found that points to design of biological
organisms, too; for example, records from an ancient ET civilization
describing their bioengineering on Earth. Detecting design is a routine
part of science already; there is no reason to change existing scientific
practices to make it possible.
Many people, including some scientists, misunderstand the foundations of
science, believing that science assumes naturalism in some form. As noted
above, though, science is based on nature, not on naturalism. To explain
this more fully, we must say something about what science is and what it
is based on. There is disagreement among philosophers over the exact
definition of science, but for our purposes, we needn't go into such
depth. We will cover only the basic philosophical assumptions that
science makes and qualities of science that are generally agreed upon.
Some basic philosophical assumptions are necessary, because conclusions
can't be made until you have something to make them with. Whether they
realize it or not, virtually everybody makes just a few very basic
philosophical assumptions; most people would call them common sense.
First, we assume that our memories are not altogether faulty; in other
words, that the past is (or was) real. Second, we make an assumption
about the future, namely that patterns and principles that have held true
in the past will probably continue. These two assumptions together may be
considered the single assumption of continuity of phenomena. Most people
also assume that there is an external reality, and that our senses give at
least a partially accurate indication of it.
The assumption of a continuity of phenomena is used by everybody.
Consider eating, for example. You need to make assumptions about the past
and its applicability to the future in order to find food, even if finding
food means nothing more than remembering what cupboard it is in. You need
the assumptions again to decide, say, that drain cleaner hasn't suddenly
become edible today. You need the assumption to decide that this thing
that looks and tastes like an apple is, in fact, and apple and not an old
shoe. In short, the assumption is so basic that we need it for survival.
Those basic assumptions--a memorable past, a predictable future, and an
observable external reality--are the only assumptions made by science (and
even the assumption of external reality is rejected by some philosophical
idealists). Science makes no other assumptions. With perception and
memory, we can see that there are certain regularities in the world, and
with induction, we can put them to use. In short, we can learn. Science
assumes only that there is a past, present, and future that we can know
something about. Once we have that, the real world provides the rest.
It is worth repeating that those assumption are not limited to science.
Everybody makes them. Even if they deny them with their
words, they live their lives according to them. Most people make
additional assumptions, but they make those basic ones, too.
Some people think that science makes additional assumptions, but it really
doesn't. It has been suggested, for example, that science assumes that
the laws of nature have been constant throughout time (e.g., ). However, that is not an assumption but a conclusion. Uniformity
of natural laws is something that scientists actively test. To date,
their tests show that there has been little if any change in the last six
billion years, but there is some evidence (still relatively weak) that the
fine structure constant has changed slightly before that .
The assumption of naturalism is another assumption that science gets
falsely accused of. Science does not make this assumption. Science does
not assume that gods are necessary, but it does not assume they are
absent, either. Science does not assume that miracles occurred, but
neither does it assume a priori that they never have. (Miracles and
science are discussed more below). Science is in the business of testing
assumptions, not adding new ones. Individual scientists may believe one
way or the other, but their beliefs are not a basis for science.
All science is based on observations of nature, which leads some
scientists to say that science must assume methodological naturalism 
(e.g. Singham, 2002). But a little investigation shows that even this is
an overstatement. The observations that science is based on are natural,
but that is simply because the things we call supernatural are not
observable, at least not directly. Supernatural forces can, in theory,
have effects that are observable. Science allows for this possibility.
In fact, several scientific studies have been done to investigate
phenomena that most people would consider supernatural, including the
power of prayer [16, 17, 18, 19], divination [20, 21], prophecy [22, 23, 24], life after death , ESP , and more. Some organizations
actively encourage scientific investigation of the supernatural . Science can hardly be called naturalistic when it actively delves
into the supernatural.
If a supernatural phenomenon is found to give repeatable, verifiable
results, science will study it. For example, if fairies appear where they
can be repeatedly observed, measured, and tested, then they will be valid
objects of scientific study. Under such circumstances, though, most
people would start calling the phenomenon "natural." The fairies that
come to be part of normal shared experience will get labelled "natural"
even if we don't yet understand how they fly, make the little sparkling
lights, and turn some of the researchers into frogs. As I mentioned
earlier, delimiting the supernatural is not easy.
But what about individual miracles? What about so-called supernatural
events that can't be studied? Suppose, for example, an apparition of a
dead relative appears and speaks to one person on one occasion, and
nothing like it ever happens again. Science has a place for such
phenomena as well: that place is outside science. But they are outside
science because the observations cannot be verified, not because they are
supernatural. Unverifiable natural events are also outside of science.
When President Harrison signed the statehood proclamations admitting North
Dakota and South Dakota to the United States, he purposely did not let
anyone see which he signed first. The question of which state was
admitted earlier is, in practice, outside of science, because no
verifiable observations can be made to answer it. (However, simply being
a one-time event does not place something outside of science. The
observations must be repeatable, not necessarily the
event being studied. Most events have observable consequences that
persist long after the event. The origin of the moon, for example, can be
studied scientifically because different mechanisms for its origin imply
different modern-day properties such as the chemical composition of moon
rocks.) To the extent that a reputed supernatural event leaves lasting
evidence, the event can be studied scientifically. And again, we find
science actively engages in studying such events. However, where
verifiable evidence is lacking, science does not apply.
Scientists and philosophers can disagree over other defining features of
science, but at least one requirement is clear. For something to qualify
as science, the observations must be independently verifiable by others.
Perhaps the greatest strength of science is that all its findings are
subject to testing, and verifiability of the raw data is foundational to
such testing. The effect of this requirement is to remove from scientific
consideration subjective impressions and unevidenced phenomena.
This does not imply that subjective and unevidenced phenomena aren't
important, merely that they cannot be used as the basis for scientific
Science has never claimed to be all-encompassing. The few people who say
otherwise are usually people who want the good reputation of science to
apply to their own ideas outside science. Intelligent design proponents
fit in this group . What these people want is more akin
to scientism than to science. They want the reputation of science without
having earned it.
The status of Intelligent Design as science has nothing whatsoever to do
with its being natural or supernatural. As we have seen, simply being
supernatural doesn't disqualify something from scientific study.
Intelligent Design is rejected from science simply because there is no
verifiable evidence to support it. Most of Intelligent Design theory is
purely subjective, saying little more than "it sure looks designed to me."
Only two lines of argument have even a pretense of being scientific. The
first, irreducible complexity, is a God-of-the-gaps argument. Certain
biological systems, it is claimed, could not have evolved, leaving design
as the alternative . This argument fails first because a lack
of evolution does not imply design, and second because the arguments fail
to allow for several biological processes that make the evolution of
irreducible complexity not only possible but expected . The
second supposedly scientific argument for design is specified complexity . But specified complexity is also a god-of-the-gaps
argument. In fact, Dembski's "explanatory filter" for detecting design is
really just the god-of-the-gaps expressed as a formal flow-chart; plus, it
relies on irreducible complexity for its conclusions. The ID advocates
deny that their arguments are god-of-the-gaps, and Dembski's arguments in
particular are dressed with lots of rhetoric and confusing and
inconsistent terminology to make them look more substantive, but in the
end there is nothing behind them [32, 33].
Ultimately, the only time they point to actual biological evidence, it is
only to ask "how?" and note that they can think of no other answer but
design. Their reasons for rejecting evolution are full of holes , and they have no positive evidence at all.
The field of science owes much of its success to the fact that it does not
apply to everything. In science, as in all fields, people often have
opposing views. Science has a basic criterion for resolving disputes.
Since the goal of science is understanding of the real world, the world
itself is the ultimate arbiter for determining answers. By limiting
itself to areas where data can be tested by multiple independent
observers, science ensures that its disputes can eventually be resolved;
where science applies, our descriptions of nature get more and more
accurate. Increasing the scope of science would destroy its authority by
allowing in areas that people could never trust. Furthermore, the
requirement for testability acts as a safeguard against people's darker
motives. Conclusions based on fraud, selfishness, wishful thinking, and
attempts at political power tend to get uncovered quickly because they get
tested. Finally, by leaving out subjective ideas, science serves to
unify. Different people have different tastes, different moral views,
different gods. As long as we apply our personal beliefs only to
ourselves, it is not for anyone else to say whether or not they are wrong.
And we may associate in communities of people with similar beliefs. But
for a common ground with everybody else, the one thing we
all have in common is the world we live in. Science represents that part
of nature which is universal, applying to everyone equally. This is not
to say it rules out any personal beliefs in other areas. As we have seen,
it does not; it leaves personal beliefs personal. But it does show a
common ground that can and often does override even the greatest
differences in religion and politics.
To show the importance of science's restriction to objectively observable
fields, let us briefly look at what science would be like without it. If
the objection to naturalism in science applies, then it logically applies
to all sciences -- indeed, to virtually all areas of human life. Demon
possession once again becomes a viable alternative to organic illness;
thunder gods are an alternative to meteorology; gremlins may explain
engineering failures; etc. If the logic of intelligent design were
applied consistently, all other fields would be every bit
as questionable as evolution.
Supernaturalistic topics are innumerable -- spiritualism, reincarnation,
voodoo, Valhalla, the Dreamtime, Deism, and various New Age practices, to
name just a few. If objection to naturalism is used as an excuse to get
intelligent design taught as an alternative, fairness and logical
consistency demand that all of the above come along as well. Theological
differences between and among religions would become a branch of science.
In particular, the nature of the designers would become a primary research
objective, just as it is in archeology, forensics, and other sciences that
deal with design. Even ID advocates do not want such topics addressed as
To get intelligent design accepted as science, its proponents attempt to
demolish the requirement of independent, objective verifiability; they
want to demolish the quality that makes science worthwhile in the first
place. If they have their way, the philosophies of naturalism will remain
unchanged, but scientific objectivity must be destroyed, and with it, the
benefits of science.
The problems with anti-naturalism look even worse when we see the actions
of its practitioners.
Despite their complaints of science being naturalistic, ID advocates
use that very science when it is convenient for them. A major focus of
the ID movement has nothing to do with supporting design or
supernaturalism at all; instead, the aim is to tear down evolution. To
this end, they cite scientific authorities and claim scientific evidence.
Granted, their use of science hardly counts as such because it is
selective and out-of-context, but the point remains that, when it serves
their interests, they make extensive use of the very tools they claim to
The methods used by ID advocates concentrate heavily on propaganda.
Their efforts are almost entirely devoted to writing and speaking
appearances, and include also lobbying congressmen and threatening critics
with lawsuits. They do no empirical investigation of their own.
And we have already seen that ID advocates oppose the logical
extension of applying their position to investigating the nature of the
designer and other supernatural claims. Phillip Johnson even rejects
theistic evolution on the ground that it denies God "gainful employment."  This is despite the fact that theistic evolution is itself
a kind of non-naturalistic intelligent design theory!
The objection to naturalism, obviously, is not intended to advance science
at all. It is intended as an opening to allow religious views to replace
scientific findings, especially evolution, that some people disagree with.
Since evolution is based on observations of nature, and since those
observations won't go away, the critics need to discredit either nature
itself or the validity of independent observation. Appeal to
supernaturalism accomplishes both goals. The selectiveness in the
opposition to naturalism (not to mention its supporters' own words) shows
its religious nature.
Since science is supposed to be universal (and the ID advocates have not
suggested changing that), bringing in one group's religious view means
rejecting every other religion. If Phillip Johnson gets his way, then the
many religions which are incompatible with His god will become
scientifically invalid. But changes won't be limited to religion.
Any subjective view could claim scientific standing, at
the expense of other views, if there is enough political power to support
it. And since everyone holds at least a few minority views, everyone
The claims made against naturalism by its critics don't come close to
holding water. Consider:
- Naturalism is not a requirement for science. Many reputable
scientists already reject naturalism. They accept an active, personal
God, and yet they also accept evolutionary theory and reject
intelligent design theory. Some of them, in fact, are among the
greatest contributors to the theory of evolution, and some are among
ID's harshest critics.
- Science is not limited to the natural. The supposedly supernatural
is regularly the subject of scientific investigation, including such
areas as divination, the efficacy of prayer, astrology, and more.
- The fundamental assumptions of science are basic common-sense
principles that ID advocates also accept.
- Science already accepts design. As science is practiced now, design
is detected routinely where evidence supports it.
The intelligent design advocates feel that they are restricted by the
practices of science. Duh. Those practices are what make science
science, and they apply to anyone who wants to do science. The ID
advocates are wrong, though, that the restriction has anything to do with
naturalism. Intelligent design is not science because there is no
objective evidence for it. It is that simple.
The ID advocates claim that they are the victims, that society is
restricting their view that miracles must be accepted as an alternative to
certain scientific findings. Really, though, they are the ones doing the
restriction. Society, including science, already recognizes miracles as
an alternative, just not as a scientific alternative. The ID advocates,
in an attempt to look respectable and to gain a larger audience, want to
break science so that their miracles will fit inside it. And they attack
many people's religion as well. Their statements make it clear that their
supernaturalism in science will not merely be an alternative; it will be
mandatory . And despite their populist claims, they want
to include only the miracles they approve of. Beliefs such as theistic
evolution are explicitly rejected. The "renewal of science and culture"
that ID advocates call for will make science untrustworthy and force a
sectarian view on a public with many diverse religious views. That is far
too high a price for a change whose promised benefits are no more than
what we have already.
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