May 30, 2008
[Blogger and The Dark Man author MS Quixote addresses this argument here]
There’s a rhetorically persuasive argument that alleges to confront the argument from design and goes something like this: Time and time again, natural explanations dethrone supernatural explanations for mysterious phenomena, while supernatural explanations never replace natural ones. What exactly do we mean when we use the word “natural?” Taken at face value, natural describes a mental construct with which we frame the phenomena of the physical universe.
In the context of arguing a natural cause for the universe while simultaneously rebutting the argument from design, one blogger explains the argument like this: “The number of times that a once-mysterious phenomenon had a divine or supernatural explanation successfully replaced by a natural one—thousands upon thousands upon thousands. The number of times that a once-mysterious phenomenon had a natural explanation successfully replaced by a divine or supernatural one—zero.” Rhetorically persuasive, isn’t it?
It is true that natural explanations often replace supernatural ones in explaining once-mysterious phenomena that take place in the natural world. That’s not what’s false about this argument. The argument leaves the incredibly simplistic and misleading impression that natural explanations of observable phenomena are “correct” and supernatural explanations are somehow “incorrect,” when in reality the whole construct is biased and ignores commonly accepted meanings of the words natural and supernatural.
It should be expected that supernatural explanations never replace natural ones for once-mysterious phenomena, because the once-mysterious phenomena occur in the so-called natural world. Is it not a working mantra of methodological naturalism that science ignores supernatural explanations? Even though a believer might argue that the cause of the universe was supernatural, the purpose of theology was never to explain the workings of the natural world. Science rose from Scholasticism. Explaining the natural world is the domain of science, so when we’re talking about apprehending once-mysterious phenomena in the natural world, natural explanations will always replace supernatural ones (I normally avoid out-of-scope quantifiers but this instance seems justifiable). This is no surprise, and to pit two different methods of explanation against one another when one of them is outside the jurisdiction of the argument unfair.
That earlier people attributed supernatural cause to things we today explain with science shows only their misunderstanding of supernaturalism’s jurisdiction, and not any inherent error or incongruity on behalf of supernaturalism or its respective domain. Furthermore, just because we understand phenomenon X to the point of reproducibility does not mean that phenomenon X is utterly devoid of any supernatural influence and/or causality. What we refer to as natural phenomena are not godless by default, and militant critics from Dawkins down the line apparently don’t realize that theists tend to interpret all these fascinating processes as circumstantial evidence of the Creator’s ingenuity and magnificent foresight; not a viable, self-contained, godless alternative to it.
Without saying the argument from design persuades me, I will say the existence of so-called natural processes in no way dethrones it. Natural is not synonymous with godless. The creation of the universe was purportedly a miraculous, supernatural event, which in fact does have perfectly ascertainable effects in our material existence as defined by the limits of space-time. But we can’t reverse engineer the perfectly ascertainable effects beyond God or causality because the latter are apparently somehow executive of matter, energy, space, and time.
An angel may have cradled that baby to make sure it landed in that dresser drawer full of socks after a tornado blew that house apart, but even though we find the baby in the drawer as such, we can never confirm our hypothesis with any sort of methodology that could even loosely be called scientific. A demon may have really manifested psychically to that kid who took his own life, but what empirical evidence are we justified in expecting from entities who are alleged to operate in their own domain, who come and go as they please? A genuine miracle may have occurred in the case of Kayla Knight, but on what grounds could we prove such? The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Trust me, this desire for peer-reviewed scientific proof is going to fly right out the window if anything even remotely close to an alien encounter happens.
These questions illustrate why the type of evidence most skeptics demand cannot exist: Although supernatural events or miracles do interact with the natural world, such events represent temporary intrusions into the natural world from entities whose very nature generally forbids them to leave hard evidence of that world. This means that we end up processing the events through our own rose-colored glasses: the skeptic sees the baby in the dresser drawer as pure luck, the believer believes otherwise.
To say the workings of the universe have natural causes does not demand or support the conclusion that the universe is godless, nor does any self-perpetuating pattern of causality nullify the possibility or potential necessity of a Creator. Methodological naturalism is not synonymous with atheism, and natural phenomena are equally describable as complementary to the phenomenon of supernatural causality, not contradictory to it.