Skip to main content

In defense of naturalism

Abstract

History and the modern sciences are characterized by what is sometimes called a “methodological naturalism” that disregards talk of divine agency. Some religious thinkers argue that this reflects a dogmatic materialism: a non-negotiable and a priori commitment to a materialist metaphysics. In response to this charge, I make a sharp distinction between procedural requirements and metaphysical commitments. The procedural requirement of history and the sciences—that proposed explanations appeal to publicly-accessible bodies of evidence—is non-negotiable, but has no metaphysical implications. The metaphysical commitment is naturalistic, but is both a posteriori and provisional, arising from the fact that for more than 400 years no proposed theistic explanation has been shown capable of meeting the procedural requirement. I argue that there is nothing to prevent religious thinkers from seeking to overturn this metaphysically naturalistic stance. But in order to do so they would need to show that their proposed theistic explanations are the best available explanations of a range of phenomena. Until this has been done, the metaphysical naturalism of history and the sciences remains defensible.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  • Adler J. E. (1990) Conservation and tacit confirmation. Mind 99: 559–570

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Adler J. E. (2002) Belief’s own ethics. MIT Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Barrett J. L. (2007) Cognitive science of religion: What is it and why is it?. Religion Compass 1: 768–786

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Barth, K. (1991). The Göttingen dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian religion (1924) (Vol. 1) (G. W. Bromiley, Trans.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

  • Bartley W. W. III. (1984) The retreat to commitment. 2nd edn. Open Court, La Salle, IL

    Google Scholar 

  • Berger, P. L. (1969). The sacred canopy: Elements of a sociological theory of religion (1967). Anchor Books. New York: Doubleday.

  • Boyer P. (2002) Religion explained. Vintage, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Butterfield H. (1950) Christianity and history. G. Bell and Sons, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Butterfield H. (1979) Does belief in Christianity validly affect the modern historian?. In: McIntyre C. T. (eds) Herbert Butterfield: Writings on Christianity and history. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 133–150

    Google Scholar 

  • Campbell N. R. (1920) Physics: The elements. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Cranefield P. F. (1970) On the origin of the phrase nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu. Journal of the History of Medicine 25: 77–80

    Google Scholar 

  • Darwin, C. (1968). The origin of species by means of natural selection (1859). Pelican Classics. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

  • Dawes G. W. (2007) What is wrong with intelligent design?. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 61: 69–81

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dawes, G. W. (2009). Theism and explanation. Routledge Studies in the Philosophy of Religion 6. New York: Routledge.

  • Dembski, W. A. (1998). The design inference: Eliminating chance through small probabilities. Cambridge Studies in Probability, Induction, and Decision Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Duhem, P. (1962). The aim and structure of physical theory (2nd edition 1914, P. P. Wiener, Trans.). New York: Atheneum.

  • Einstein, A. (1961). Relativity: The special and the general theory (R. W. Lawson, Trans.). New York: Three Rivers Press.

  • Flew A. (2005) God and philosophy (new edition). Prometheus, Amherst, NY

    Google Scholar 

  • Førland T. E. (2008a) Acts of God? Miracles and scientific explanation. History and Theory 47: 483–494

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Førland T. E. (2008b) Historiography without God: A reply to Gregory. History and Theory 47: 520–532

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gillespie N. C. (1979) Charles Darwin and the problem of creation. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL

    Google Scholar 

  • Godfrey-Smith, P. (2003). Theory and reality: An introduction to the philosophy of science. Science and its Conceptual Foundations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Gregory B. S. (2006) The other confessional history: On secular bias in the study of religion. History and Theory 45: 132–149

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gregory B. S. (2008) No room for God? History, science, metaphysics, and the study of religions. History and Theory 47: 495–519

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gregory F. (1992) Nature lost: Natural science and the german theological traditions of the nineteenth century. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA

    Google Scholar 

  • Haack S. (1993) The two faces of Quine’s naturalism. Synthese 94: 335–356

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Horton R. (1993) Patterns of thought in Africa and the west: Essays on magic, religion and science. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Hume, D. (1993). Dialogues and natural history of religion (1779, 1757). Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Johnson, P. E. (1995). Reason in the balance: The case against naturalism in science, law, and education. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.

  • Johnson, P. E. (1997). The unravelling of scientific materialism. First Things, 77, 22–25.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jones, J. E. (2005). “Memorandum opinion” Kitzmiller et al. vs Dover Area School District, U.S. Supreme Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, 20 December. http://www2.ncseweb.org.wp.

  • Kuhn, T. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.). International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

  • Lakatos I. (1970) Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes. In: Lakatos I., Musgrave A. (eds) Criticism and the growth of knowledge. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Laudan, L. (1982). Commentary: Science at the bar-causes for concern. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 7(41), 16–19.

  • Marsden G. M. (1997) The outrageous idea of Christian scholarship. Oxford University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • McMullin E. (1978) Structural explanation. American Philosophical Quarterly 15: 139–147

    Google Scholar 

  • McMullin, E. (2001). Plantinga’s defense of special creation. In R. T. Pennock (Ed.), Intelligent design creationism and its critics: Philosophical, theological, and scientific perspectives (pp. 165–196). A Bradford Book. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Meyer B. F. (1979) The aims of Jesus. SCM, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Meyer S. C. (1999) The return of the God hypothesis. Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 11: 1–38

    Google Scholar 

  • Moore, G. E. (Ed.). (1959). A defence of common sense (1925). In Philosophical papers. London: Macmillan.

  • Musgrave, A. (1999). Essays on realism and rationalism. Series in the Philosophy of Karl R. Popper and Critical Rationalism XII. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

  • Novick, P. (1988). That noble dream: The “objectivity question” and the American historical profession. Ideas in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Pennock R. T. (2000) Tower of Babel: The evidence against the new creationism. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

    Google Scholar 

  • Plantinga A. (1981) Is belief in God properly basic?. Noûs 15: 41–51

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Plantinga, A. (1996). When faith and reason clash: Evolution and the bible. In R. T. Pennock (Ed.), Intelligent design creationism and its critics: Philosophical, theological, and scientific perspectives (pp. 113–145). A Bradford Book. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Plantinga A. (2000) Warranted Christian belief. Oxford University Press, New York

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Plantinga, A. (2001a). Methodological naturalism? In R. T. Pennock (Ed.), Intelligent design creationism and its critics: Philosophical, theological, and scientific perspectives (pp. 339–361). A Bradford Book. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Plantinga A. (2001b) Rationality and public evidence: A reply to Richard Swinburne. Religious Studies 37: 215–222

    Google Scholar 

  • Polanyi M. (1963) The potential theory of adsorption. Science NS 141: 1010–1013

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Popper, K. R. (2002). The logic of scientific discovery (1959). Routledge Classics. London: Routledge.

  • Pyysiainen, I. (2003). True fiction: Philosophy and psychology of religious belief. Philosophical Psychology, 16, 109–125.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Quine W. V. (1995) Naturalism; or, living within one’s means. Dialectica 49: 251–261

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rae M. A. (2005) History and hermeneutics. T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh

    Google Scholar 

  • Ruse M. (1982a) Darwininsm defended: A guide to the evolution controversies. Allison-Wesley, Reading, MA

    Google Scholar 

  • Ruse, M. (1982b). Response to the commentary: Pro Judice. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 7(41), 19–23.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ruse, M. (2001). Methodological naturalism under attack. In R. T. Pennock (Ed.), Intelligent design creationism and its critics: Philosophical, theological, and scientific perspectives (pp. 363–385). A Bradford Book. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Salmon W. (1978) Religion and science: A new look at Hume’s ‘dialogues’. Philosophical Studies 33: 143–176

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schick T. Jr. (2000) Methodological naturalism vs. methodological realism. Philo 3: 30–37

    Google Scholar 

  • Shanks N. (2004) God, the devil, and Darwin: A critique of intelligent design theory. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Strauss, D. F. (1840). Die christliche Glaubenslehre in ihrer geschichtliche Entwicklung und im Kampfe mit der modernen Wissenschaft dargestellt. Tubingen: C. F. Osiander.

  • Strauss, D. F. (1865). A new life of Jesus (1864). London: Williams & Norgate.

  • Swinburne R. (1985) Review of the miracle of theism by J. L. Mackie, faith and rationality edited by Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, faith and reason by Anthony Kenny, and God and skepticism by Terence Penelhum. The Journal of Philosophy 82: 46–53

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Swinburne R. (2001) Plantinga on warrant. Religious Studies 37: 203–214

    Google Scholar 

  • Swinburne R. (2004) The existence of God. 2nd edn. Clarendon Press, Oxford

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Troeltsch, E. (1991). Historical and Dogmatic method in theology (1898), translated by Ephraim Fischoff and revised by Walter Bense in Religion in history—Ernst Troeltsch: Essays translated by James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense (pp. 11–32). Edinburgh: T & T. Clark.

  • Weber, M. (1949). The methodology of the social sciences (1904–1917) (E. A. Shils & H. A. Finch, Trans. and ed.). Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

  • Wright N. T. (1992) Christian origins and the question of God: Volume 1: The new testament and the people of God. SPCK, London

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gregory W. Dawes.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Dawes, G.W. In defense of naturalism. Int J Philos Relig 70, 3–25 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11153-011-9291-8

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11153-011-9291-8

Keywords

  • Methodology
  • Naturalism
  • Ontology
  • Explanation
  • Theism
  • Religion