In my recent debate at Theology Unleashed, with Matt Dillahunty, Dillahunty made the claim that science necessarily follows methodological naturalism, allowing only for causes within nature. This is a common assertion by atheists. It’s wrong, and here’s why:
First we need to start with the definition of science. Despite the huge literature on this topic and the great confusion about the answer, I think the answer is relatively simple. Classical philosophers defined science (scientia) as the systematic study of effects according to their causes. To clarify, consider the three assertions in this definition:
1) science is systematic — that is, it is not merely the occasional musing or haphazard insight but an organized planned course of action to deepen understanding.
2) science is the study of effects — that is, it is the study of things that we can know and/or observe.
3) science studies effects by exploring their causes. The causes studied by science can be any of Aristotle’s four causes — material, formal, efficient, or final. A metallurgist studies material causes, a taxonomist studies formal causes, a physicist studies efficient causes, and archaeologist studies final causes.
In the traditional understanding, all systematic study of effects according to causes is science. This includes theology and the various subdisciplines of philosophy, ethics, as well as natural science. What we moderns call science classical philosophers would call natural science or natural philosophy.
So science in the modern world is really the systematic study of natural effects according to their causes. Note that science studies natural effects and does not and cannot specify whether the causes must be natural or supernatural. To constrain science to the search for natural causes is to introduce inherent error into scientific investigation — the error is that if supernatural causes exist, then science would be blind to them and therefore would not be good science. If we are to understand natural effects, we must be open to all kinds of causes, including causes that transcend nature. To restrict causes in natural science to causes within nature itself is to impose an ideological bias on the science and thus make science a slave of ideology instead of truth. This is obviously what atheists do when they insist upon methodological naturalism.
Note also that the insistence upon methodological naturalism means that atheists can’t even plausibly claim that science provides no evidence for God’s existence, which of course they claim all the time as Dillahunty did in our debate. If you preclude the supernatural a priori from scientific evidence, then you can’t logically argue that scientific evidence refutes the existence of the supernatural. Yet atheists do this all the time — they argue at the same time that science is methodologically naturalist, and that science demonstrates that God doesn’t exist.
Atheists don’t even understand their own contradictions. Cognitive dissonance plagues atheism at every step.
So science must include the possibility of supernatural causes if it is to seek the truth without ideological bias. And the reality is that science does routinely invoke causes outside of nature. The most obvious example is the Big Bang. To understand this, consider the singularity that cosmologists universally agree was the source of the Big Bang and the singularities that give rise to black holes.
A singularity in general relativity is a location where the quantities necessary to describe the gravitational field are lost in infinity. Thus space-time at that location is undefined. In mathematics, a singularity can be understood as division by zero, which is undefined mathematically. In this sense, a singularity in physics is undefined physically.
Thus, a singularity is not within nature as understood by modern science. It cannot be known in itself by any theory in science. There are, of course, countless other examples of supernatural (i.e. extra-natural) causes recognized in natural science – the mathematical equations of modern physics are excellent examples. The field equations of general relativity, Schrödinger’s equation, Newton’s equation of gravitation and Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism are not “things” that exist in nature — mathematical equations have no mass, density, location, or temperature. Yet they are the backbone of modern physics and are ubiquitously referred to by scientists as causes, at least in the formal sense.
Given that natural science is the systematic study of natural effects according to (all) their causes, the extra-natural nature of singularities or mathematics is not a problem at all. While science cannot define the singularity in itself, it can know things about the singularity that allow us to understand natural effects in our universe. We can know three things about extra-natural singularities:
1) We can know what singularities are not — they aren’t quantifiable, they don’t have dimensions, they don’t have color or shape or electrical charge. This negative knowledge doesn’t give us a complete picture of singularities of course, but it does help us to understand them in the sense that we know what they are not.
2) We can know the effects of singularities in the natural world — we know that a singularity gave rise to the Big Bang and that singularities are at the centers of black holes. This knowledge is of extraordinary use to science — the understanding of the natural effects of the extra-natural singularities of the Big Bang and in black holes is the foundation of modern cosmology.
3) We can know something about singularities by analogy — it is common for example to represent black holes as deep pits in a stretched rubber membrane with the membrane representing space-time. These analogies help us to partially understand what singularities are.
To see how this definition of science and routine scientific method of exploring natural effects by understanding all causes — natural and supernatural — is applicable to proving the existence of God, consider the traditional theological methods by which we can know God.
Classical theologians point out that we cannot know God as He is. Our supernatural Creator so transcends us that no knowledge of Him on our part can be complete or direct. We can only know Him indirectly and incompletely. Classically there are three ways to acquire this incomplete knowledge:
1) We can know God by what He is not — He is not limited, He does not change, He is not material, He is not mortal, He is not evil, etc.
2) We can know God by His effects in the world — this kind of knowledge is provided by the classical arguments for God’s existence such as Aquinas’ Five Ways, the Rationalist Proof, the Neoplatonist Proof, the Aristotelian Proof, the Proof from Moral Law, etc. All of these proofs entail the systematic study of the effects in nature that point to God. [See “ten proofs of God’s existence” for a brief explanation of each proof.]
3) We can know God by analogy — that He is good by an analogy to good things in the world, that He is powerful by an analogy to powerful things in the world, that He is beautiful by an analogy to beautiful things in the world, etc.
My comparison between the scientific approach to understanding singularities and the scientific approach to understanding God is not to argue that God is a singularity. It is to argue that science routinely uses tools that allow us to know supernatural things (i.e., things not defined in nature, such as singularities) even though we are incapable of direct and complete knowledge of them. This scientific method includes, as we have seen, 1) definition by what a cause is not, 2) definition by studying natural effects of supernatural causes, and 3) definition by analogy. It is exactly the same method we use in natural theology to understand God.
Natural science is the systematic study of natural effects according to all causes, natural and supernatural. Neither in theory nor in practice does natural science exclude supernatural causation — science that excludes supernatural causes is not science at all, but ideology. And the method by which natural science studies supernatural causation (e.g. singularities, mathematical laws of physics, etc.) is identical to the method by which theologians study God in the discipline of natural theology.
To sum up, natural science is not methodologically naturalist — it routinely points to causes outside of nature. Science can and does point to God’s existence, and given the massive evidence for intelligent agency in our universe, it can quite reasonably be said that God’s existence is the most thoroughly proven theory in natural science.
- Debate: Former atheist neurosurgeon vs. former Christian activist. At Theology Unleashed, each gets a chance to state his case and interrogate the other. In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and broadcaster Matt Dillahunty clash over the existence of God.
- A neurosurgeon’s ten proofs for the existence of God. First, how did a medic, formerly an atheist, who cuts open people’s brains for a living, come to be sure there is irrefutable proof for God? In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, Michael Egnor and Matt Dillahunty clash over “Does God exist?” Egnor starts off.
- Atheist Dillahunty spots fallacies in Christian Egnor’s views. “My position is that it’s unacceptable to believe something if the available evidence does not support it.” Dillahunty: We can’t conclusively disprove an unfalsifiable proposition. And that is what most “God” definitions, at least as far as I can tell, are.
- Egnor now tries to find out what Dillahunty actually knows… About philosophical arguments for the existence of God, as he begins a rebuttal. Atheist Dillahunty appears unable to recall the philosophical arguments for God’s existence, which poses a challenge for Egnor in rebutting him.
- Egnor, Dillahunty dispute the basic causes behind the universe. In a peppery exchange, Egnor argues that proofs of God’s existence follow the same logical structure as proofs in science. If the universe begins in a singularity (where Einstein’s equations break down), what lies behind it? Egnor challenges Dillahunty on that.
- Is Matt Dillahunty using science as a crutch for his atheism? That’s neurosurgeon Michael Egnor’s accusation in this third part of the debate, which features a continued discussion of singularities, where conventional “laws of nature” break down. If the “supernatural” means “outside of conventional nature,” Michael Egnor argues, science routinely accepts it, based on evidence.
Next: Dillahunty asks the 2nd oldest question: If God exists, why evil?
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Atheist spokesman Matt Dillahunty refuses to debate me again Although he has said that he finds debates “incredibly valuable,” he is — despite much urging — making an exception in this case. Why? For millennia, theists have thought meticulously about God’s existence. New Atheists merely deny any need to make a case. That’s partly why I dumped atheism. (Michael Egnor)