Thursday, May 3, 2012

Methodological naturalism

Yesterday, I discussed the first half of Dembski's BioLogos essay Is Darwinism Theologically Neutral?, which created some discomfort in my mind. I found his non-negotiables to be odd, and that led me to suspect that I might not be comfortable with the way he uses them.

In the second half of his essay, Dembski deploys these non-negotiables to argue against the theological neutrality of "Darwinism." As much as I was bothered by the non-negotiables Dembski chose to focus on, I am equally bothered by the way he uses them. I want to focus on two issues that I see: human exceptionalism and methodological naturalism.

Dembski described his third Christian non-negotiable, human exceptionalism, as "Humans alone among the creatures on earth are made in the image of God." By itself, I think that's a pretty standard piece of doctrine, although I'm not sure I would describe it as a non-negotiable, in the sense that you have to believe it or you can't be a Christian. The question as I see it is what is the image of God? We evangelicals have usually treated the image as a qualitative difference that sets us apart from animals, but that is certainly not the only theological interpretation of the image. There are plenty of theologians who view the image as a position we hold, rather than a quality we possess. I've discussed this position before. What makes that position interesting is that it isn't obviously incompatible with an evolutionary origin of human beings. See Joshua Moritz's paper Evolution, the End of Human Uniqueness, and the Election of the Imago Dei, for one example of how this might be done. For many other reasons, I tend to think that the compatibility of the image with human evolution might be oversold, but I do have to admit that viewing the image as position is at least not obviously incompatible with human evolution.

That said, here's how Dembski uses Human Exceptionalism:
Some theistic evolutionists are ready to follow Darwin here, such as Karl Giberson (see his Saving Darwin), and abandon Human Exceptionalism as conceived within orthodox theology. Others, desiring to stay within orthodoxy, punt. Take Francis Collins, who denies that our moral capacities represent the natural development of the same essential capacities in other primates. Yet to say that our moral or cognitive or linguistic capacities are unprecedented in the rest of the animal world flies in the face of Darwinian evolution, certainly as Darwin conceived it. Darwinism’s logic is inexorable. Evolution works by borrowing, taking existing capacities and reworking them. But if our moral or cognitive or linguistic capacities are unprecedented, then they are, for all intents and purposes, miracles.
That sounds very suspiciously like a qualitative view of the image, which he seems to equate with orthodox theology. It's difficult to say for sure, though, since he merely declares that Human Exceptionalism and Human Continuity ("Humans are continuous with other animals, exhibiting no fundamental difference in kind but only differences in degree.") have the "most difficult tension to resolve." The very fact that he contrasts these two also implies he's holding a qualitative view of the image, since a positional view of the image would not at all conflict with Human Continuity as he defines it. If Dembski is treating nonqualitative views of the image of God as unorthodox, then he puts himself in conflict with other Southern Baptist theologians. For example, Peter Gentry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary does not take the qualitative view (see his Kingdom through Covenant: Humanity as the Divine Image). Is Gentry therefore unorthodox? Or a compromiser on a Christian non-negotiable? See how awkward Dembski's line of argument becomes?

From the image of God, Dembski then turns to the issue of methodological naturalism. Here's Dembski's definition: "The physical world, for purposes of scientific inquiry, may be assumed to operate by unbroken natural law." I think that's a reasonably OK definition, but we must keep in mind the qualification "for purposes of scientific inquiry," which sets apart methodological naturalism from philosophical naturalism. A philosophical naturalist declares that there is nothing other than the material stuff of the universe. Sagan's famous quote "The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be" is a prime example. On the other hand, methodological naturalism merely asserts that even if there was something other than the material universe, that's not something we can detect, so there's no reason to talk about it in science. It's more of a pragmatic decision that in some sense allows science to operate. For example, if we always had to take seriously the hypothesis of invisible fairies influencing our experimental observations, scientists couldn't get much done.

Here's how Dembski treats methodological naturalism:
Darwinism, in embracing (D4) [methodological naturalism], rules out miracles and, more generally, any teleology external to the material world. Now granted, Darwinism so characterized limits this prohibition against miracles/teleology to the study of nature. But the problem for Christians is that salvation history occurs against the backdrop of nature. In particular, Christ’s Resurrection, or (C4), occurs against this backdrop. To tie God’s hands by saying that God can act only one way in natural history (i.e., in accord with natural law) but has a freer rein in salvation history (i.e., can there perform miracles) seems arbitrary.
That sounds like something I'd like to agree with, but I don't see how methodological naturalism could possibly "tie God's hands." Methodological naturalism is an epistemological position that recognizes reasonable limitations to human abilities to sense the supernatural. In other words, methodological naturalism is a limitation on what I think I can know. How can that possibly "tie God's hands?" A consistent methodological naturalist when confronted with Christ's resurrection (or any miracle) could only say that science is extremely limited in such cases to understand what happened or how. There is no way that methodological naturalism could rule out the miraculous. That's what philosophical naturalism does. Dembski insists that evolutionary creationists "have to confront why this naturalism [i.e., methodological] shouldn’t extend to salvation history as well." Frankly, I'm not sure what the problem would be. If methodological naturalism means that science limits itself to naturalistic explanations (as Dembski himself asserts), then science would merely have nothing to say about Christ's resurrection. How is that incompatible with Christian theology? It sounds like Dembski is conflating methodological and philosophical naturalism.

Again, to make sure you understand where I'm coming from, I think there are good reasons to be concerned about the compatibility of evolution and Christian theology, but I don't think Dembski has made a very good case for incompatibility. It seems like Dembski is arguing against an extreme form of naturalistic evolution, to which most Christian evolutionists I know would object. I think ignoring the Fall and sin (a real Christian non-negotiable) left Dembski with a weak, unconvincing straw man argument. For a good introduction to this issue of original sin, I recommend Jamie Smith's review of Enns's The Evolution of Adam that I also mentioned yesterday.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.