Sunday, May 21, 2017

Does methodological naturalism in science transfer to history?

Many people, both theists and atheists, believe that science requires methodological naturalism. This means that the scientist must only consider natural causes in seeking explanations for events; the scientist cannot appeal to miracles to explain events. By extension, many people argue that history likewise requires methodological naturalism. In other words, the historian must only consider natural causes in seeking explanations for events; the historian cannot appeal to miracles to explain events.

Obviously, if atheism is true, then methodological naturalism is appropriate for both science and history. In other words, if there are no supernatural agents, then neither the scientist nor the historian will ever be led astray by methodological naturalism.

However, if theism is true, I suggest that methodological naturalism only works for science. If theism is true, then methodological naturalism may at times lead the historian astray. This is due to a fundamental difference between science and history. 

Consider two events: the origin of life from nonlife and the resurrection of Jesus. Many theists attribute both events to the miraculous intervention of God in nature. Both are certainly outside the realm of normal experience. Dead people stay dead with great consistency. Likewise, scientists have never observed life arise from nonliving matter. Scientists are not only completely unable to create life; they have essentially no idea about how such an event could have happened in the past. They certainly have no robust and detailed description of the processes which produced the first living cell.

Nevertheless, all scientists agree that life arose from nonlife. On the other hand, historians who accept methodological naturalism unanimously reject the resurrection of Jesus. Why this difference?

Consider the origin of life. We have direct empirical evidence that the universe, and certainly the planet, is not eternal in the past. To claim that life existed on Earth from eternity past would contradict a massive body of empirical evidence. Thus, though we have no explanation for how life arose from nonlife, all scientists – whether theists or atheists – are forced to conclude that it did. 

History, however, is a different matter. Our knowledge of most events in history does not come through direct empirical evidence; it comes through recorded testimony. If we begin by refusing to consider supernatural causation, then even if the testimony of history points to a miraculous event, we will never be able to accept it. In the absence of supernatural agency, it will always be more probable that the testimony is fallacious than that the miraculous event actually occurred.

Of course, if atheism is true, this is no problem. However, if theism is true, and if God did act in history, then methodological naturalism will blind the historian from perceiving what actually happened in the past.  

In summary, methodological naturalism does not prevent scientists from detecting miraculous events. It simply leaves them agnostic about the explanation of the event. On the other hand, methodological naturalism does prevent historians from detecting miraculous events. Thus, one cannot simply assert that history requires methodological naturalism. One must first demonstrate that atheism is true. If one cannot first rule out the possibility that theism is true, then one is not justified in adopting methodological naturalism in history.

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