Thursday, 25 January 2007

An argument for Methodological Naturalism: A declaration of intent

The theme of this site is No Double Standards and One Standard for All and I thought it was about time I started expanding on what I meant by this. What is this "one standard" so this and future related posts will discuss one key aspect, namely Methodological Naturalism.

Methodological Naturalism

Starting with my direct experience of life, with my brain and body interacting with a society of similar beings in a physical world, with lets us call it, basic empiricism, I have found, through discovery, learning and the extension of this basic empiricism, that methodological naturalism is the best, that is the most coherent, reliable and robust, means of understanding and dealing with and in this world. Methodological naturalism is, in formal terms, a research program, that assumes that natural phenomena have natural explanations in terms of natural causes. It is, now, an explicit assumption within science, as a basis to do science. But it has broader application than just formal science and is a general assumption that I, anyone and everyone uses on a day to day basis to comprehend, negotiate, navigate and effect the world. It is the basis and a justification for a set of empirical methods that we all use use in many, if not all, aspects of our day to day lives. Methodological naturalism is not something that can be falsified but falsification is part of what constitutes it. That is it relies on feedback and falsification to identify errors and mistakes, to eliminate those errors and minimise possible mistakes and so is intrinsically error-correcting and progressive. If a particular method fails, it may be inapplicable in that context, maybe in general, maybe it can be revised, or maybe another method is more appropriate. Methodological naturalism enables one to best improve those methods by which one deals with the world. No-one, in the sense of this discussion here, is a methodological naturalist, rather it is the generic name for what they prefer to use.

Metaphysical naturalism
There is one optional extension of this, that as a consequence of the success of it in my own life and, by observation, in the world in general, is that I realise and choose that my fully-formed worldview is metaphysical naturalism. This is a view that goes beyond the evidence - that's what metaphysical means here - but is the view that is both the most consistent and coherent with all the evidence and the one that makes the fewest possible additional assumptions. It is the most empirically-based worldview I can find and it is inherently provisional - as all worldviews are - except, unusually, this one recognises its falsifiability, still it is just the most probable world view in light of all the evidence. Should the evidence change, then this worldview could be called into question and even rejected. How could the evidence change, well it would be methodological naturalism that could show this, which would still remain as the best possible program even as it shows metaphysical naturalism to be untenable.

Not an argument for Metaphysical Naturalism
I do not believe that my metaphysics alters in the slightest my practical actions in the world. Indeed that is one of my motivations for my metaphysics, that is what it means when I say it is the most consistent with my pragmatic experience and actions in the world. It is fortuitous that, whilst I think it is most likely to be true, it is the also easy option to take, as conflicts between my metaphysics and physics (so to speak) are, in effect, zero. As beneficial as this is I am not going to argue for metaphysical naturalism on this site, although, inevitably, I will make reference to it. If this is the case, then what am I arguing for?

The superiority of Methodological Naturalism
Now based on on the effectiveness of methodological naturalism together with the principle of mediocrity (I am no better or worse than anyone else) but not on my worldview of metaphysical naturalism, I hold that methodological naturalism is likely to be the best method for everyone and that the world would be a better place if everyone used methodological naturalism in dealing with the world. That is I accept that others will have different and additional metaphysical components to their worldviews but regardless of this, I am arguing for the inclusion of methodological naturalism as part of everyone's worldviews and this is not a metaphysical argument, it is a pragmatic and moral argument. It is the purpose of this site to develop these arguments and so these statements here should be taken here both as explanation of my position and as a declaration of intent but as nothing more for now.

Main objections to this view
For sure there are many but here I only want to tackle the most obvious ones. These and others will all be expanded upon in future posts.

Are you not arguing for Scientism? No, first I am arguing for methodological naturalism and not science per se. Now whilst methodological naturalism is a key assumption for science, I am arguing that it is also a key assumption that we all use in our everyday lives, regardless of our metaphysics or our knowledge of science, it is just that some let their metaphysics interfere with or contradict it, sometimes to the detriment of society. Scientism is, as I understand it, a faith position and I am not arguing for any faith position, nor indeed against any faith position but only at adverse implications of some faith positions, relative to methodological naturalism as and when it affects the political, educational and ethical discourse in society.

Isn't Naturalism a faith position? If you mean Metaphysical Naturalism, first I am not arguing for it on this site and, anyway, not all metaphysical positions are based on faith and this is one of them. It is not a faith position because it based on the cognisance of all the available reasonable evidence and makes no additional assumptions except the null hypothesis that (nature) is just all there is. Further this is an empirically refutable worldview, it has not been refuted to date and I hold this as highly unlikely to happen (the latter is the result of my metaphysics). Faith based metaphysics by definition either ignores empirical evidence, runs contrary to such evidence and cannot be refuted by evidence, that is what it means to be faith-based. I am arguing for methodological naturalism, which is not a metaphysics position nor worldview, and specifically to justify using it as a general and primary assumption in understanding the world of the here and now and that this a better assumption than any else. If you think any such justification for an assumption is an act of faith then the idea of faith has lost all its meaning and is semantically useless and we need other criteria to evaluate these claims.

Surely if one has a different metaphysics to metaphysical naturalism this can conflict with methodological naturalism? Yes, it can conflict but it does not have to be the case. My two exemplars, that I have mentioned before, are Dr Ken Miller and Martin Gardner pre-eminent in biology and skepticism respectively. They both have additional metaphysical components to their worldview and they nonetheless use methodological naturalism -whether they actually call themselves this or not is irrelevant, as has already been said, this is the generic name for the set of practices they do use, at least in their professional lives. So my goal is to argue for the use of methodological naturalism and not against any metaphysical worldview and, in principle, there there is no reason for someone or group to hold widely different metaphysical worldviews and still mutually benefit using methodological naturalism in the political, educational and ethical spheres of this world.

What Next
The next post will compare and contrast naturalism and atheism.