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Introduction to Metaphysical Naturalism

Introduction to Metaphysical Naturalism [1] (1999)

Understanding the Warfare Between Science and Religion

by Bill Schultz


Many people from both the communities of science and religion lack certain basic understandings of what issues truly divide these two camps. Among common people on both sides, the lack is endemic. And in fact, the dividing line is not particularly clear, since some scientists are devoutly religious. Also, religion will frequently try to use the tools of science to argue for its point of view, all the while arguing that science is “just another religious point of view.” These religious views about science are flat wrong.

If there is “another religious point of view” which develops out of scientific thinking, that view is properly referred to as “metaphysical naturalism.” Science, in and of itself, is in no way hostile to religion. Instead, it is the philosophy of metaphysical naturalism that is hostile to supernaturalism, and virtually all mainstream religions embrace some form of supernaturalism as part of their religious dogma.

While I’m perfectly willing to admit that I’m an advocate for metaphysical naturalism, I do feel it necessary to write this introductory essay from a more neutral point of view. I do this so that people from both sides who wish to understand (or approach) people from the other side can better (and more quickly) attain their goals.

One of the key problems in any philosophical discussion (and this issue certainly falls within that realm) is the problem of vocabulary. Each side uses words in different ways, sometimes within the same discussion.[2] For instance, a Christian might argue that “God is the prime mover (or “first cause”) of our universe.” But before long, the Christian is naturally bound to use “Jesus” and “God” as practical synonyms, even though the Christian dogma holds that Jesus didn’t exist before roughly 2,000 years ago. Many an atheist refers to this sort of verbal “sleight of hand” as “dishonest.”[3] That becomes an attack on the character of the Christians who make such an argument without considering that there is 2,000 years of dogmatic underpinning to this rather obvious word game. We have (at least, most of us have) grown up in a culture permeated with the dogma of Christianity from one source or another. It is quite natural for these verbal “slips of the tongue” to creep into even the most well-intentioned discussion.

So, another reason for this essay is to illuminate these areas of differing word usage for the benefit of all. Hopefully, with this knowledge in hand, theists and non-theists can engage in productive discussions without insulting anybody on either side.

What Is Science?

The word “science” is best understood as implying more strictly the term “scientific method.” You can’t call it “science” if it does not use “scientific method.” But science by no means implies (or requires) metaphysical naturalism. Many of the earliest scientists were supernaturalists of the most extreme sorts. This applies to many of the ancient Greek philosophers whose work lies at the very foundations of scientific method.

The entire field of astrology, commonly used by the ruling class in ancient times, was an attempt to use the methods of science in order to understand the relationship between people and the gods who ruled them. So, the phrase “when Jupiter aligns with Mars” would be taken as a statement implying a literal alliance between those two gods. As scientific method began to be fleshed out, particularly over the last 200 years, gradually it became clear that astrology does not rely upon truly scientific methodology, but instead relies on psychological trickery.[4] So, no reputable scientist of today would attempt to submit a technical paper claiming validity for the methods used by astrologers or the results they obtain to a reputable scientific journal, such as Scientific American.

The two foundational concepts of scientific method are “repeatability” and “explanatory ability.” If an experiment is repeatable by unaffiliated independent investigators, if the documentation of test conditions and results is carefully accumulated to facilitate that independent investigation, and if the results obtained by anyone can be used to explain past observations and to make predictions about future observations, then that experiment can be properly identified as “scientific.” Careful analysis of these requirements shows that supernatural causes and effects are not automatically excluded by this scientific methodology unless those supernatural causes and effects cannot, by their nature, be “repeatable.” Certainly, there is no problem with supernatural explanations. We’ve been receiving those from various religious groups since the beginnings of recorded history.

Accordingly, if there is any inherent bias against the supernatural which is “built into” the methods of science, it is this requirement for “repeatability.” Science refuses to recognize results as being scientifically valid unless some independent individuals or groups of scientists can reproduce those same results “at will” by creating the same experimental conditions as might be described for the original research.[5]

The reason for this bias is that the results of scientific investigation would be totally useless without requiring “repeatability.” The whole purpose of science is to accumulate knowledge that can be used by other people as a benefit to themselves or as a basis for further investigation into the greater details of “how things are.” Scientific method also seeks out things that don’t behave as predicted and then attempts to explain why. In this way, science is always “self correcting.” If there were no repeatability, we wouldn’t ever know what results to predict, let alone whether things were behaving as predicted or not.

The difficulty, of course, is that when supernatural phenomena become repeatable, they are no longer really “supernatural.” Almost by definition, everything that is well enough understood to be “repeatable” must necessarily be a “natural” phenomenon. So, gradually over time, science has taken from supernaturalism every “repeatable” phenomenon and assigned to it some scientific explanation (even if it was just a description of how to utilize the phenomenon in question to obtain the “repeatable” result). This leaves the supernatural with only that which cannot be repeated “at will,” and that sort of knowledge is generally useless to mankind.[6]

What Is Metaphysical Naturalism?

As science has developed over the past few thousand years, it has gradually appropriated all knowledge of “repeatable” and “explanatory” phenomena. Over the past few centuries it has become popular to believe that there is no “useful”[7] knowledge outside of that produced through the application of scientific method.

Formally, this becomes a philosophical position to the effect that nothing exists in reality that is not a “repeatable” phenomenon for which some “explanation” exists (even if we do not happen to know what that explanation is). This philosophical position takes the name of “metaphysical naturalism” because it makes a fundamental assertion about what is real (a “metaphysical” assertion), and that assertion is that the only reality is the “naturalism” described through scientific method.

In essence, metaphysical naturalism is a prediction about what findings scientific method will produce in the future. A metaphysical naturalist believes that science will never find any evidence of any supernatural causes or effects, without regard to whether or not those phenomena are repeatable “at will.” This position strays outside the true boundaries of science in at least two respects. First, science itself never excludes the possibility of reaching any particular result. Science stands ever ready to deal with any result that is produced through scientific methodology. Second, science includes the requirement of “repeatability” for knowledge to be useful. The metaphysical naturalist maintains that even non-repeatable, “unique instances” of supernatural phenomena (causes and/or effects) do not exist.[8]

The metaphysical naturalist makes these two additional claims based upon thousands of years of scientific investigation into every aspect of our universe. Science has no reliable documentation of any supernatural phenomena. Therefore, the metaphysical naturalist maintains, there are no such phenomena that have any real existence. Science is all about using the past to predict the future. The metaphysical naturalist thus believes these two additional conclusions to be a valid extension of the philosophy of science.

Is Science Based On Faith?

Supernaturalists (or “theists”) will generally make no bones about the fact their beliefs are based on “faith.”[9] “Faith” has even become a synonym for “religion.”

Unfortunately, many of these people will turn right around and claim that “science too is based on faith.” That assertion is flatly wrong. Metaphysical naturalism is based on faith, but SCIENCE is NOT!

There is no “faith” in the two foundational concepts of science: repeatability and explanatory ability. Both are definitional terms chosen to produce useful results. Only the utility of the results is at issue for science. Since its been shown that results that are not repeatable and/or which cannot be explained are pretty useless to future scientists, science provides its own justification for imposing these two fundamental standards.[10]

But, as is clearly explained above, metaphysical naturalism “takes it on faith” that no supernatural phenomenon will ever be discovered. Thus, metaphysical naturalism is properly classified as a “faith.” At least, that is a conclusion demanded by fairness.[11]

Why All This Confusion?

Unfortunately, in any debate between metaphysical naturalists and supernaturalists of any given set of beliefs, neither side has any stake in standing up for the integrity of science as an independent institution. So, each side makes claims designed to appropriate science to support its own position. And also, even more unfortunately, each side tends to misrepresent the true nature of science by imputing some of their own religious values to science as an institution.

Thus, for instance, many metaphysical naturalists will implicate science as fundamentally embracing metaphysical naturalism. That assertion goes too far because of the two things that metaphysical naturalism adds to science:

  1. the exclusion of any and all possibility of finding any “supernatural” phenomena; and
  2. the exclusion of the scientific requirement for “repeatability.”

The advocates of supernaturalism are just as guilty of misusing science to their own ends. Here, however, the usual deceit is to implicate “God” in whatever phenomena science currently lacks an explanation for. This is technically called a “God of the gaps” assertion by both sides (metaphysical naturalists and supernaturalists).[12]

For instance, science currently lacks any explanation for how living cells arose out of inanimate matter. The supernaturalists assert, without any proof, that this lack of knowledge by science is proof that “only God could have created life from inanimate matter.” Similarly, claims are made of a “minimum complexity” for life, and that this “minimum complexity” makes it so highly improbable that life could have arisen through any mechanism other than as an effect of a supernatural cause that “God must have done it” is the only acceptable conclusion. Each of these assertions is predicated on a current LACK of knowledge and is thus properly categorized as a “God of the gaps” assertion.

However, the record over the centuries of “God of the gaps” claims is that science will eventually find an explanation. Gradually, down through the centuries, science has explained one such claim after another. Thus, the metaphysical naturalists see a closing off of possible effects that might properly be attributable to “God” and they use that progress over time as part of the justification for metaphysical naturalism. This, of course, frustrates and annoys the supernaturalists, who then tend to cry “foul!” In fact, explaining any one thing as a “natural phenomena” in no way justifies the exclusion of “God” as the cause for any remaining unexplained phenomena. Clearly, more is needed. The true metaphysical naturalist believes that “more” comes in the form of absolutely no accepted scientific evidence in favor of any supernatural phenomena occurring at any place or time within the entire known history of our universe. But faith is a strong motivating factor for the supernaturalists, and so long as any substantial phenomenon remains unexplained, supernaturalists will construct a “God of the gaps” argument.

Some Conclusions

Strictly construed, science and religion have no fundamental claims that can possibly come into conflict. Science makes no claims about ultimate reality or absolute truth. All claims of science are strictly provisional, based on evidence accumulated in the past, and subject to revision whenever any new evidence is verified that contradicts any scientific claim. And virtually by definition, science cannot deal with “the supernatural.”

Properly constrained, religion has no claims that can conflict with science because the purpose of religion is to deal with issues such as ultimate reality and absolute truth. In the past, when science and religion have come into severe conflict it has always been in cases where religion should never have offered up any claims in the first instance, and eventually in each of these cases, religion has always been forced to yield to science. So long as religion constrains itself to claims about “the supernatural,” religion cannot come directly into conflict with science.

Metaphysical naturalism, on the other hand, is a philosophical position derived from the study of thousands of years of human scientific endeavor. Based on that study, adherents to this philosophy assert that no supernatural exists. So long as “God” is equated with the supernatural, metaphysical naturalists will be atheists as a matter of definition.[13] Only the fuzziness in various definitions of what “God” is leaves room for metaphysical naturalists to be anything other than atheists.[14]

It is wrong to conflate science with metaphysical naturalism. Yes, there is a close relationship between the two, and many (even the majority of) scientists will also be metaphysical naturalists.[15] But many, perhaps even a majority, are not.[16]

Both theists and metaphysical naturalists ought to simply take the findings of science and deal with them, whatever they might prove to be. There is no good reason to involve the occupation of scientist in an essentially religious argument between supernaturalists and metaphysical naturalists. The verdict of history is that when good science and any religion lock horns, it’s the religious point of view which must eventually back down and change. There is literally no reason to believe that this will ever be different in the future.

As to the disagreements between my fellow metaphysical naturalists and our opposition, I can only say that “the jury is still out, and it will probably remain out for the rest of the existence of the human species.” Accordingly, we ought not to allow our disagreements to degenerate into bitterness and personal animosity. Each side should understand that the other bases its position upon honest and strong conviction, and that it is unlikely either side will sway more than a small percentage of people to change sides.

Still, we must all get along on this planet we have as our common home. And we ought not to let our disagreement over metaphysical fundamentals destroy the good working relationship we’ve had in the past to maintain excellence in our educational systems. In other words, the current battles over biological evolution versus creationism stand no more chance of being resolved in favor of the religionists than did the argument over Earth-centrism several centuries ago. As we delve further into the DNA of various life forms, we can begin to more clearly see the pattern of relationships that evolution has left us. We have already taken a lowly worm and shown it to have roughly 40% of its DNA in common with Homo Sapiens. As we deconvolve the DNA of other species, the nearly inevitable result is that evolution will be proven beyond a conceivable scientific doubt.

Of course, science doubts everything as a matter of habit. This is the primary distinction between science and metaphysical naturalism. What I’ve just expressed in the previous paragraph is my own view about the need to educate our young to perform the work of science, without regard to what philosophies we each might hold. Do not burden science with assertions of metaphysical supernaturalism and I won’t seek to burden science with assertions of metaphysical naturalism. In that way, we ought to all be able to get along.

[1] This is an introductory essay, intended for lay people. If you wish to begin at a more formal level, I would suggest that Mark Vuletic’s essay, “Methodological Naturalism and the Supernatural” (1997), at /library/modern/mark_vuletic/ntse.html might be a good starting point.

[2] Properly speaking, this is the fallacy of equivocation. Check out the “Logic & Fallacies” page of the Atheism Web at /news/atheism/logic.html#equivocation for more on this and other logical fallacies.

[3] And, with respect to “Jesus Christ” being “God,” I too am an atheist. Whatever Jesus may or may not have been, Jesus most certainly was not and is not “God.” So, I too find this deliberate noun confusion to be “dishonest.”

[4] A typical experiment conducted using scientific method that investigates the utility of astrological predictions would include passing out horoscopes at random and obtaining a response from each subject as to how closely the predictions matched their own experience. The results of this sort of inquiry clearly demonstrate that virtually all horoscopes are seen to be at least generally applicable to virtually all people. See, for instance, “Introduction to Psychology” (1989) by Dennis Coon, pages 23-25.

[5] An example of this sort of thing was the excitement generated a few years ago over a phenomenon called “cold fusion.” A group of scientists held a press conference to announce that they had discovered “cold fusion.” Unfortunately, no independent team could reproduce their results. Accordingly, no reputable scientist today accepts the validity of those “cold fusion” discoveries.

[6] I do not care to address here such issues as the efficacy of prayer. There are scientifically valid reasons why prayer can be good for people as a form of “psychological conditioning.” Explaining distinctions such as this go well beyond the scope of this introductory essay.

[7] Here, I use the term “useful” in the sense of implying some benefit to the individual or to some group within the sphere of our lives as human beings. Obviously, eternally perfect life in “Heaven” could be a significant benefit, but not necessarily to us humans during our lives here.

[8] For this reason, a metaphysical naturalist is strongly biased against believing in Post-Easter stories about what Jesus Christ said and did here on Earth after he was crucified. Any existence after death is, by the nature of its total unverifiability, of a “supernatural” nature.

[9] In this sentence (and later in this section), I use “faith” in the sense of this definition of the word: “(1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust.” I also use the word “faith” as synonymous with “religion.” For each distinct usage, it should be obvious which meaning is intended.

[10] In other words, science has provided us with plenty of “proof” (thereby negating the element of “faith”) for the validity of its imposing requirements of repeatability and explainability for some particular phenomena to become a subject of scientific inquiry. If the results of scientific experiments were always totally random in nature, there would be no particular value to performing any scientific experiments. Thus, the need for some valuable result in return for the investment of time and money into scientific inquiry justifies the need for repeatability in scientific results. A similar argument may be made for explainability (another valuable byproduct of scientific investigation).

[11] I do not mean to imply that the prediction of the future by metaphysical naturalists is in any way unreasonable. After many thousands of years of scientific investigation, leading right up to the present, it is probably fair to conclude that if we haven’t any reliable evidence of supernatural phenomena at this point in time, there probably isn’t any such evidence to be had by scientific inquiry.

[12] The phrase “God of the gaps” may originate with Isaac Newton. Formally, it is “[a] phrase representing the idea (in creationism) that God did miraculous acts to create particular things or processes in the world, which cannot be explained by merely physical causes. Thus God plays the role of a gap-filler in the scientific story of natural history.” So it seems that supernaturalists use this phrase as an explanation, while naturalists use it as an epithet. See: for more definitions of words and phrases commonly used in discussions of this sort, including the material from which this footnote is drawn.

[13] For further reading on this point, please see Professor Drange’s essay, ” Atheism, Agnosticism, Noncognitivism” (1998) at /library/modern/theodore_drange/definition.html and pay particular attention to the various definitions of “God” which are offered up therein.

[14] I constantly tell people that “if ‘God’ is defined as ‘Jesus Christ,’ then without a doubt, I am a strong atheist because I affirmatively deny the divinity of Jesus.” Unfortunately, “God” is not so simply defined so as to cover even all the “usual” cases, so I firmly adhere to both agnosticism and metaphysical naturalism.

[15] This claim is particularly true of the “greatest” scientists in each field. On average, the more seniority and professional respect any given scientist accrues in his of her field, the more likely it is that particular scientist will also be a metaphysical naturalist. In a recent survey replicating a famous survey performed early in this century (as described at and elsewhere), this assertion was confirmed. “The latest survey involved 517 members of the National Academy of Sciences; half replied. When queried about belief in ‘personal god,’ only 7% responded in the affirmative, while 72.2% expressed ‘personal disbelief,’ and 20.8% expressed ‘doubt or agnosticism.'” The results for belief in “immortality” or “life after death” closely paralleled these same numbers. Similar surveys performed among “average” scientists returned much higher percentages of belief in supernatural phenomena.

[16] The available survey results, described at the URL in the above note, are close enough for the “general population” of scientists that some bias in the exact wording of the questions asked could easily throw the results either way.

The text of this essay is Copyright © 1999, by William A. Schultz. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of the author.