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Defending Naturalism

Keith M. Parsons, Editor

The following article is from Philo, Volume 3, Number 2.

This issue of Philo opens with a topic that has recently generated considerable controversy. Proponents of the latest version of creationism, "Intelligent Design Theory," including, alas, some prominent philosophers, have recently attacked methodological naturalism. The natural sciences, from astronomy to zoology, have long assumed a naturalistic framework. That is, the sciences have long assumed that the causes and explanations of natural phenomena are to be found in nature itself and have excluded theories postulating gods, souls, spirits, or other supernatural entities. This practice is now being challenged by proponents of "theistic science" who regard an exclusively naturalistic methodology as an expression of dogmatic materialism. They charge that methodological materialism presupposes metaphysical materialism by assuming that supernatural beings do not exist or that the only causes are natural ones.

A Society of Humanist Philosophers conference held in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in September of 1999 addressed some of these issues. One of the papers given there was Barbara Forrest's essay printed in this volume. Forrest argues that, while methodological naturalism does not entail metaphysical naturalism, the enormous success of naturalistic methodologies, and the corresponding lack of anything like a supernaturalistic methodology, makes metaphysical naturalism a far more reasonable position. This essay is followed by Theodore Schick's paper which argues that science should not presuppose either methodological or metaphysical naturalism. He contends that scientific methods could in principle confirm supernatural hypotheses. In practice, supernatural hypotheses have consistently failed to meet even minimal standards of rigor, testability, scope, simplicity, etc., and therefore were rightly rejected. The scientific disdain of the supernatural is therefore not an a priori prejudice, but the result of long, bitter experience.

One of the most popular theistic arguments has been the "fine tuning" argument. When presented by skillful theistic debaters this argument has great intuitive appeal, and has befuddled a number of their atheist opponents. In this issue we are proud to present two excellent articles criticizing the "fine tuning" argument. The first, by philosopher Theodore Drange, presents a rigorous version of the argument and then a powerful critique. It is often said that there are no truly knock-down arguments in philosophy; the most skillful refutation still leaves wiggle room. However, Drange's paper comes as close to a knock-down blow as any I've seen. If any "mopping up" operation is needed after Drange's attack, it is ably provided by physicist Victor Stenger's essay. Stenger, with a clear mastery of the physical concepts, attacks the central thesis of the argument, i.e., that any significant variation in the basic constants would produce a universe hostile to complex life. He shows just how shaky that core premise is.

In addition, we present two essays critical of work by leading theistic philosophers William Alston and Richard Swinburne. Alston's 1991 book Perceiving God advanced the challenging thesis that, like sense perception, mystical claims to perceive God should be considered prima facie reliable. Peter Byrne's incisive essay challenges this claim and rebuts Alston's attempts to deny crucial disanalogies between sense perception and mystical experience. Lewis Vaughn presents a clear and cogent critique of some of the main arguments of Richard Swinburne. We conclude with book reviews of Michael Denton's Nature's Destiny and A. Weisberger's Suffering Belief.

Other papers from the 1999 conference will appear in future issues.


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