Many of you know that my wife was diagnosed with cancer last August, and since that time she has undergone chemotherapy and radiation to reduce the tumor, successful surgery to remove the tumor, and is now in the process of follow-up chemotherapy to prevent recurrence of the tumor. We appreciate all the prayers we have received, and all of the tremendous care we have been given by our fantastic doctors and nurses.
Just before the surgery I told our surgeon that were praying for him, and he seemed to appreciate that (I will forego the opportunity to make a joke about surgeons who think they should be the object of worship!). And it would greatly encourage me to know that he prayed before he began to operate on my wife. In other words, I would find encouragement knowing that he was not a philosophical naturalist, someone who thinks that all that exists is the natural order, to the exclusion of anything beyond the natural world, such as God.
But imagine that when we visited our medical oncologist, he took a look at my wife’s test results and said, “Wow, there is some weird growth in your body. It must be a demon – and I can’t do anything about demons!” We wouldn’t have accepted that diagnosis for a minute! In this case, whatever the doctor’s philosophical posture might be, we would want him to provide a naturalistic analysis of the growth, and to devise a treatment plan designed to combat the sort of cells threatening her life. In other words, we would want him to be a methodological naturalist – someone whose methods of investigation and treatment were grounded in the material world of drug therapies and radiation.
Furthermore, this doctor may in fact be a Christian, and not a philosophical naturalist. He may even believe that unseen evil spiritual forces may cause harm in the natural world (as Scripture itself suggests may happen). And he may very well pray that his diagnosis and method of treatment will be successful. But in terms of his work as a medical doctor, his methodology is limited to the resources of the natural world. And indeed, I would insist that he be a thoroughgoing methodological naturalist, using every conceivable means of medical treatment.
There is a difference between philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism. But unfortunately, many people do not see this crucial distinction. There are some people who believe that the only legitimate sense in which a statement can be true is if it can be ascertained by scientific methodology. Preacher-turned-atheist Dan Barker declares, “The scientific method is the only trustworthy means of obtaining knowledge” (Losing Faith in Faith, p. 133). Of course, the obvious question for Mr. Barker is, by what scientific method did you arrive at that bit of knowledge? Such an assertion is a matter of philosophy (really, a matter of faith), and in no way scientific.
Science is the study of the natural world, and it can offer a lot of insight into the nature and function of the natural world. But scientific truth is not the only sort of truth. Science may explain how to design a hydrogen bomb, but the question of whether the use of such a weapon is justified, and under what circumstances, is not a scientific question – it is a moral question. Scientific knowledge is a subset of Truth; it isn't the entirety of Truth.
Lack of clarity on this point is why the debate about intelligent design is so frustrating to both sides. I think the root of the frustration is a failure to recognize the distinction between philosophical and methodological naturalism. It is fair to say that ID is not a strictly scientific hypothesis, not in the methodological sense of the term. Rather, it is an inference drawn from scientific evidence. But whether ID is true is a completely different question from whether it qualifies as science, and as the citation from Dan Barker demonstrates, believers are not the only people who draw philosophical inferences from scientific data.
(For next time – the God of the gaps and the practice of science)