Neil Shenvi - Apologetics

II. Areas of purported conflict between science and religion

B. The metaphysical conflict

Second, let's look at another claimed area of conflict between science and religion.

"Any account of nature should pass the tests of scientific evidence... Nature may indeed be broader and deeper than we now know; any new discoveries, however, will but enlarge our knowledge of the natural." - Humanist Manifesto II
"One of the greatest gifts science has brought to the world is continuing elimination of the supernatural." - James Watson, Nobel laureate, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA
"All the biblical miracles will at last disappear with the progress of science." - Matthew Arnold, 19th century poet

Here, we see the Humanist Manifesto, Nobel Laureate James Watson and poet Matthew Arnold all making similar claims about the nature of reality. They all suggest that science shows - or one day will show- that Nature is all that exists. But does science really show that nothing outside of nature exists? Absolutely not, for at least two reasons.

First, the position that "nature is all that exists" is known as naturalism. But naturalism is a metaphysical proposition, not a physical proposition. In other words, naturalism is not the result of science; instead it is a philosophical assumption that, in this case, is tacked on to the discipline of science. After all, precisely what experiment demonstrates that "Nature is all that exists"? There isn't one. There is no microscope or telescope or magnetometer which will test the truth value of this statement. If scientific knowledge comes from experimentation, then the statement that "Nature is all that exists" is outside the realm of scientific knowledge.

Second, we need to recognize that methodological naturalism does not imply metaphysical naturalism. What do I mean? Methdological naturalimm is the assumption that non-natural entities -if they exist- will not interfere with my experiment. In contrast, metaphysical naturalism is the proposition that non-natural entities do not exist at all. Based on our definition of science, science can only address regular, repeatable, empirically testable phenomena because only these can be subject to experiment. Consequently, scientists generally make the assumption of methodological naturalism. But the assumption of methodological naturalism for the purposes of interpreting our experiments in no way necessitates that metaphysical naturalism is true.

To see how this works, imagine I am feeling sick and I'm referred to a toxicologist to determine why I am sick. After many rounds of tests, he cannot explain my illness. So he comes to me and says "I can't figure out why you're sick. Your symptoms must be a result of some unknown poison." I say "Or I suppose my symptoms might not be the result of poison at all. Maybe I have a cold." Suddenly, the doctor turns red. "Nonsense!" he shouts, "I am a toxicologist. I don't believe in colds!" You'd probably recognize that the toxicologist has confused methodology with metaphysics. For the purposes of his diagnosis, he assumes that some poison must be the root cause of my symptoms; however, it doesn't follow that no other causes can possibly exist.

But can't scientists and non-scientists alike be guilty of the same mistake? When confronted with an incident with no known natural cause, the response is "There must be some unknown natural cause. I am a scientist. I don't believe in supernatural causes!" So while I agree that there is a potential conflict here, it is not a conflict between science and God. Instead, there is a conflict between a naturalism and theism, two metaphysical positions.

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If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.

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