A Response To Jeff Lowder’s Argument From The History Of Science

Jeff Lowder offers an Argument from the History of Science (AHS) that purports to establish naturalism / atheism as more likely to be true than supernaturalism / theism:

If there is a single theme unifying the history of science, it is that naturalistic (i.e., non-supernatural) explanations work. The history of science contains numerous examples of naturalistic explanations replacing supernatural ones and no examples of supernatural explanations replacing naturalistic ones. Indeed, naturalistic explanations have been so successful that even most scientific theists concede that supernatural explanations are, in general, implausible, even on the assumption that theism is true. Such explanatory success is antecedently more likely on naturalism–which entails that all supernaturalistic explanations are false–than it is on theism. Thus the history of science is some evidence for metaphysical naturalism and against theism. Since metaphysical naturalism entails that no supernatural beings exist, including God, the history of science is some evidence for atheism.

With all due respect to Jeff, there is so much wrong with this argument that I don’t know where to begin. For one, let’s unpack the claim, “natural explanations work.” Does Jeff mean that natural explanations work in the sense of utility (i.e. they have predictive power and pragmatic value)? Does he mean they work in the sense of getting a job done (i.e. allowing us to describe observed phenomena)? If the former, that’s essentially a recognition of order in the universe. How does order have any bearing on whether naturalism is more likely than theism? If the latter, it strikes me as a non-starter. That we describe observed phenomena in natural terms also has no bearing on (a)theism. So it’s unclear what Jeff thinks he’s accomplished by noting that “natural explanations work.”

Second, we should note that Lowder seems to implicitly accept the provisional methodological naturalism (PMN) described by Boudry et al. as, “provisory and empirically grounded commitment to naturalistic causes and explanations, which in principle is revocable by extraordinary empirical evidence.” This is in contrast to intrinsic methodological naturalism (IMN), which is the a priori philosophical commitment to not even consider supernatural explanations.

I highlight the distinction to show that AHS fails given PMN or IMN. Given IMN, it should be expected that supernatural explanations never replace natural ones because supernatural explanations are disallowed a priori. Lowder’s AHS requires PMN: it relies on the assumption that supernatural explanations *CAN* actually replace natural ones. If that’s not true, AHS fails.

What about Lowder’s PMN? Does the situation change simply because Jeff thinks supernatural explanations can replace natural ones? I don’t think so. Lowder defines a “supernatural” person or cause as one who exists outside of “the spatio-temporal universe of natural entities.” Well, science can’t investigate anything outside the spatio-temporal universe of natural entities! At most, a scientist could posit a “supernatural” explanation for hitherto unexplained phenomena—then get beat over the head with God of the gaps retorts. So Lowder’s PMN seems to lead directly to fallacious thinking.

Third, and most damning, the argument takes textbook fallacious form. IEP defines begging the question as, “A form of circular reasoning in which a conclusion is derived from premises that presuppose the conclusion.” That’s exactly what’s going on here. Jeff concludes that the history of science is evidence for naturalism / atheism because natural explanations replace supernatural ones, but that premise presupposes that the explanations are ultimately natural (read: godless).

The problem is, we don’t know this! If God created this universe, then all phenomena and explanations are ultimately supernatural. Every orderly procession of caterpillar to butterfly can only be explained supernaturally, along with every ebb and flow of every wave that ever was. Jeff calls it a “fact” that “so many true scientific explanations are non-supernatural.” Well, yeah, it’s a fact that we can describe phenomena in “natural” language, but we don’t know if God created this universe. That’s the very question the AHS purports to investigate! To just declare the explanations as “natural” (read: godless) is to beg the question. It’s circular reasoning. The word “natural” is shorthand for “godless” in this argument.

Therefore, AHS provides no evidence for atheism.

4 comments

Just switch mathematics with science in the quote below and then apply it to Lowder’s AHS statement.

Insofar as the laws of mathematics are certain, they do not refer to reality, and insofar as they refer to reality, they are not certain.

— Albert Einstein, quoted by Korzybski in Science and Sanity

I think you are right that Lowder’s argument doesn’t work as well in the favor of atheism as he says it does,but does it a little? Could it though, work as an argument against any supernatural claims that occur after creation in the supernaturally created universe?

If it all was created and is sustained by a supernatural force, that supernatural force seems to be so consistent in its behavior, that any deviation(supernatural claims within the system) from our understanding of this consistency (science) seem infinitely unlikely in a probabilistic sense.

One most wonder why? As well as how likely it is that pushing the supernatural back to the beginning makes it any more likely.

I actually went over this on great detail over at Randal Rauser’s blog, in that thread and some others. I won’t rehash it here, but anyone interested should have a read.

The short of it is that Lowder’s argument is terrible, and shatters the moment you start to examine it closely and ask him to define things like ‘natural’, ‘physical’, etc. He ended up defining things in response to my and Rauser’s objections, but that only made his case worse. If I recall, he ended up being backed into a corner where his argument basically became ‘if God existed, then scientists should have by now encountered a question that could only be explained by positing an omnipotent, omniscient supernatural natural being’. There’s problems with that beyond what I’ll say here, but the fact that that is his stock example shows just how horrible his argument is: he’s creating an unbelievably narrow standard that I maintain is in principle impossible to meet (you can always either imagine a ‘non-theistic’ explanation for any empirical observation, or play the promissory note game).

Hi Kyle.

I think you are right that Lowder’s argument doesn’t work as well in the favor of atheism as he says it does,but does it a little?

I don’t think so.

Could it though, work as an argument against any supernatural claims that occur after creation in the supernaturally created universe?

I don’t think so, because the skeptic can always punt to promissory naturalism: “I can’t explain the video game incident, but I’m sure it’s a hitherto undiscovered natural explanation.” The observation of order is no evidence against violations thereof.

If it all was created and is sustained by a supernatural force, that supernatural force seems to be so consistent in its behavior, that any deviation(supernatural claims within the system) from our understanding of this consistency (science) seem infinitely unlikely in a probabilistic sense.

That just strikes me as saying we shouldn’t expect an orderly God to make arbitrary violations if He wants. I see no reason to make that assumption.

As well as how likely it is that pushing the supernatural back to the beginning makes it any more likely.

At this point I think the discussion shifts to the First Mover arguments, and I agree with Aristotle and the Thomists.

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