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Methodological Naturalism

Terry Mortenson of Answers in Genesis (AiG) is not a fan of scientific study of the earth. According to Mortenson, the entire field of geology is rooted in anti-theistic philosophy.

Two Enlightenment-generated philosophical movements in the eighteenth century, deism and atheism, elevated human reason to a place of supreme authority and took an anti-supernaturalistic view of the Bible, holding it to be just another human book. The two movements with their advocacy of an old-earth and their effect on astronomy and geology preceded Darwin and supplied him with millions of years needed for his naturalistic theory of the origin of living things. From this lineage it is clear that geology is not an unbiased, objective science and that old-earth theories, naturalism, and uniformitarianism are inseparable.

Specifically, Mortenson is arguing against proponents of intelligent design (ID) who join AiG in opposition to evolution, but don't take a stance on the age of the earth. Mortenson explains:

I strongly agree with and appreciate a great deal of what leaders in the ID movement are writing, not only about the scientific problems with all theories of biological evolution, but especially about the stranglehold that philosophical naturalism (hereafter simply ‘naturalism’) has on science.

However, from my reading of ID books and articles and listening to lectures by some of those leaders, I do not think that they see clearly enough the extent to which science is dominated by naturalism. The reason for this observation is that many ID leaders have made oral or written statements something like this: ‘We are not going to deal with the question of the age of the earth because it is a divisive side issue. Instead we want to address the main issue, which is the control of science by naturalism.’

In Mortenson's view, the age of the earth is not a side issue, but an example of this "control of science by naturalism."

In a sense, he's right. Science looks for natural explanations for natural phenomena. This is known as methodological naturalism. The idea behind this type of naturalism is to restrict scientific inquiry to things that can be observed and analyzed.

Methodological naturalism should not be confused with philosophical naturalism, the belief that what we can observe and analyze is all there is. To be sure, the majority of scientists do hold to both types of naturalism. But even a scientist who believes in God will use methodological naturalism in the process of scientific investigation.

And that makes sense. If you want to know how things work, you use the tools of science. If you want to know the meaning of it all, you can turn to theology.

For example, a scientist studying how a rainbow is formed will first turn, not to the book of Genesis, but to an understanding of the properties of light refracted through a prism.

The flood story in Genesis, which describes a rainbow as God's promise never to flood the earth, simply was not written as a scientific treatise. Even creationists understand that science and the Bible do not offer competing explanations of a rainbow. They cover different aspects of reality.

But when it comes to evolution (or, for that matter, astronomy, archaeology, paleontology, or geology) the folks at AiG insist on putting Bible stories and field research on the same playing field. This is not just bad science, it's bad theology. Unchecked, it can lead to God-of-the-gaps theology, in which "God" is merely a placeholder for things we don't understand. As our knowledge of the natural world grows, this placeholder has fewer places to hold. As scientific knowledge grows, God-of-the-gaps shrinks.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi prison, sharply criticized this view:

How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.

AiG's Mortenson, in his attempt to avoid the trap, nevertheless stumbles into it:

In light of these considerations, biblically informed students of God’s creation should invoke supernatural explanations only when there is an explicit biblical indication that God has done supernatural things (e.g., creation week, the fall , the flood, and the Tower of Babel). Otherwise, Christians should seek to explain what they see in creation by the processes and laws of nature.

This strategy turns the Bible into something it was never meant to be, creates conflict where it need not exist, and results in an inconsistent worldview. AiG's approach is disrespectful to both science and Christianity.

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