Joined: Oct. 2006
Interestingly, although the term “methodological naturalism” is young, components of the debate have been pursued within the Catholic Church since the 12th century, and continue to the present day. See the article by Philip J. Jacobs: “An Argument Over ‘Methodological Naturalism’ at the Vatican Observatory” in The Heythrop Journal, XLIX (2008), pp 542-581.
|This paper is framed as a continuation of a 12th century debate over whether a ‘profane’ account of nature without reference to arbitrary divine acts in its workings (secundum phisicam) threatens the unity of scriptura et natura that was assumed in the natural philosophy which developed out of the Platonic/Augustinian tradition. Currently this issue takes the form of either a commitment to or circumvention of the protocol of ‘methodological naturalism’ in the explanation of natural history, most clearly with regard to evolutionary theory. The focus of the paper is on the latent disagreement over this issue between two poles of the steering committee which oversaw a series of conferences co-sponsored by the Vatican Observatory. One side was willing to make a sustained commitment to ‘methodological naturalism’, arguing that while nature was not self-explanatory, its inherent characteristics were sufficient for explaining the course of natural history. The other side was initially willing to concede the protocol, but ultimately saw the unity of scriptura et natura threatened. After the introduction, Section II analyzes specific disagreements between the two groups over theological epistemology, theological language, and God as a necessary factor in the explanans of natural history. That analysis becomes the basis in Section III for the assertion that the strategy of the second group involves returning to an older form of natural philosophy with a doxa-episteme progression that allows it to augment the ‘profane’ epistemology of ‘methodological naturalism’ with an esoteric insight in order to recognize what is ‘objectively’ the case. Natural philosophies of this sort permit a ‘semantic variability’ such that the designation of a claim as ‘theological’ can mean that it both is and is not a semantic alternative to claims that follow the protocol of ‘methodological naturalism’. The strength given the claim will depend on the discourse context. The paper concludes with a chart of the multiple and significant differences between the two groups.|
Jacobs notes that this discussion has a history extending back to the 12th century.
|It is not a new argument since an early version of it was debated in the 12th century. In that period, the cosmology offered in the Timaios provided the framework for a natural philosophy in a Platonic mode which permitted a seamless melding of religious, aesthetic, philosophical, and ‘scientific’ elements. Since this model did not distinguish between ‘natural’ and ‘religious’ knowledge, the ‘prejudice’ of faith was granted an essential position in its comprehensive epistemology. Eventually, however, an interest developed in a methodological program to produce an account in which nature could be known in itself, secundum phisicam, a view represented in the writings of William of Conches (d. 1154). He took the step of stipulating that the cosmos was from the very beginning guided by laws of nature such that its processes proceeded according to an immanent physical lawfulness that could be studied by rational research. In such an account, no reference need be made to arbitrary acts of God. William of Saint-Thierry (d. 1148/49) opposed this, criticizing the inherently ‘naturalistic’ tendency of such a position. His basically Augustinian criticism was taken up as well by Richard of St. Victor (d. 1173) for whom the program of secundum phisicam represented a step toward a ‘profane’ understanding of nature, which in his view was simply not possible. The debate showed how, in the view of some, the idea of ‘profane nature’ functioning independently of specific divine directions threatened to undermine the unity of scriptura et natura. It was suggestive of a disquieting alternative to the kind of integration of theology and ‘science’ that had allowed for theological explanations of natural processes. To demarcate ‘nature’ in this way implied accepting a limitation on the biblical meaning of the divine arbitrium (dominion and authority). The reaction of those opposing William of Conches, therefore, was to reaffirm the integrative natural philosophy of the Platonic/Augustinian tradition.|
He further notes that two opposing schools of thought have continued to contest this issue within the Vatican Observatory to the present day:
|My strategy for parsing out the differences between them involves creating two ‘constructs’ which will represent the consolidated views of the members in each group. The first position, generally aligned with Richard of St. Victor, includes Robert Russell, Nancey Murphy, and Thomas Tracy [RMT] and the members of the second are William Stoeger S.J., George Coyne S.J., and Ernan McMullin [SCM] who can be seen as sympathetic to William of Conches’ interests.|
He describes their contemporary positions:
|For [SCM], a central intention of the conferences was to nurture what it sees as a developing rapport between science and theology. It presupposes a version of a ‘consonance criterion’: there should be mutual respect between the two disciplines, with each remaining within the area of its competence and neither making competing claims that infringe on the type of reflection practiced by the other. This criterion, then, presumes a ‘methodological naturalism’, a procedural decision not to permit the admixture of theological claims into scientific inquiry, and specifically into the explanans of natural history. [RMT], in order to fulfill the ‘consonance criterion’, will passively concede at the outset that science must proceed according to ‘methodological naturalism’. Yet [RMT] shares the medieval concern that such a ‘profane’ explanation of nature threatens the unity of scriptura et natura since it would make it unclear how God superintends creation as the biblical accounts propose. Consequently, after its initial concession, it finds a way to have a ‘fluid’ semantic so that the designation of a claim as ‘theological’ allows it to mean that it both is and is not a semantic alternative to claims that follow the protocol of ‘methodological naturalism’. [RMT] can do this by returning to a Platonic mode of natural philosophy that allows it to meld its ‘theological epistemology’ with ‘profane epistemology’ in order to produce a model in which, while different explanations can be offered for the same natural event, there is ultimately just one integrated, comprehensive explanation. The theological claims can, when the context permits, supersede (by augmenting) those of natural science and require mention of the divine agent in order to establish what actually happened/happens. As a result, the original concession of ‘methodological naturalism’, granted possibly for diplomatic reasons, ends up being surpassed by a claim that theology can make ‘objective’ claims about the course of natural history.|
With respect to the “semantic variability” suggested by the second [RMT] group Jacobs remarks:
|What remains, then, of the commitment [of the LCD faction] to the protocol of ‘methodological naturalism’? I would argue that it can appear and disappear ‘pragmatically’ as a function of the current discourse context. But this pragmatic benefit has its weaknesses since it would seem that it only succeeds when the discourse contexts are kept isolated from one another, otherwise the inherent variability presents debilitating problems. For example, there is the following petard on which [RMT] hoists itself: if God in the details of evolution is to be used intramurally in a parochial discussion of apologetics, then it can be strengthened at will and be presented as a claim in natural history. But what strength should it be given if it were part of an open, intermural polemic against the opponents/atheists? In that context, were [RMT] to weaken the claim to avoid sounding like Intelligent Design, then it would find itself drifting back into a parallel language approach and given the agenda of the new Neo-Orthodoxy it cannot do that. So it would be forced to the Intelligent Design position (and the abandonment of ‘methodological naturalism’), all the while trying (unsuccessfully) to argue that it is not a version of Intelligent Design. The only way [RMT] can avoid this loss of coherence is by intentionally segregating the discourse contexts, even though it is using the same ‘constructive theology’ in both. At this point questions about coherence as well as candor arise once again.|
It an interesting article that traces the implications of this debate through quantum physics, the question of randomness, and evolution. It certainly gives the lie to the assertion that the constraints suggested by methodological naturalism, and controversy regarding same, are new phenomena. Unfortunately, it appears to be available only behind institutional/pay walls.
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