Philosophical and methodological naturalism

by Neil Rickert

I am often accused of naturalism, sometimes of the methodological kind and sometimes of the philosophical kind.  The accusations typically come from creationists or ID proponents.  And there’s some redundancy there, because most ID proponents are creationists.  I deny either form of naturalism.

I am posting, partly to draw attention to a recent New York Times column, “What Is Naturalism?” by Timothy Williamson.  In that column, Williamson explains why he is not a naturalist.  He is referring to what I have called “philosophical naturalism.”  My own reasons for rejecting philosophical naturalism are similar to Williamson’s.  I would add another reason.  Philosophical naturalism is a metaphysical thesis, and I cannot find any basis for settling metaphysical questions.  Until I find a legitimate way of doing metaphysics, other than just making stuff up, I shall reject it.

Part of Williamson’s reasoning has to do with mathematics, and the difficulty of giving it a naturalistic basis.  As a mathematician, I agree with his concerns.  It’s not that I see anything mystical about mathematics — I don’t.  It is just that mathematics is important, yet does not fit as a part of the natural world.

By contrast, methodological naturalism is not supposed to be at all metaphysical.  Some say that it is a requirement of science, namely that scientists only seek natural explanations.  However, I cannot find any basis for methodological naturalism either.  It seems to me that scientists seek explanations that are well supported by evidence and that stand up to testing.  Having found such explanations, they may then say that what they have discovered is part of nature.  Perhaps the distinction is subtle.  A methodological naturalist supposedly starts with an a priori idea of what is natural, and limits his investigation to what is part of that category of natural things and phenomena.  I see scientists as not so constrained, as starting without such an a priori commitment, but as later extending and expanding their idea of what is natural so that it will include what has newly been discovered.

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