Two accounts of methodological naturalism, II

Alejandro Jenkins explains the rise of the “multiverse” hypothesis:

[The laws of physics] seem finely tuned to make our existence possible. Short of invoking a supernatural explanation, which would be by definition outside the scope of science, a number of physicists and cosmologists began in the 1970s to try solving the puzzle by hypothesizing that our universe is just one of many existing universes, each with its own laws.

This is a perfect example of the “incompetence” account of methodological naturalism: choose a hypothesis which falls within your competence, and supernatural causes fall outside of it. If the multiverse hypothesis fails,  simply try another hypothesis that does not invoke supernatural causes.

But if the multiverse hypothesis bears fruit, isn’t this some sort of confirmation that invoking supernatural causes is a mistake? We explained the phenomenon without the supernatural! Supernatural 0, Atheism, 1, right?  This is a ridiculous way of seeing the facts: all the success of the multiverse proves is that physics can take one more step within its domain of competence. It is not the refutation of something outside your path, it is simply a confirmation that you can take one more step on your own path.

But what about Aristotle’s Physics? How can I claim that it is both physics in a sense univocal with contemporary physics, and yet terminates in a supernatural cause? This peculiar character is because it less relies on hypothesis to understand the physical world. The hypothesis always gives one a choice which side of a contradiction he wants to choose. Aristotle, on the other hand, starts with certain basic observed truths about the natural world and derives conclusions from them, and so he is inevitably forced into “following the argument where it goes”, even if it leads him to a sphere outside of his competence as a student of physics.

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2 Comments

  1. Joseph A. said,

    December 24, 2009 at 2:31 am

    I asked in another thread what “natural” and “supernatural” actually are, and stated that multiverse theories clearly seem to be “supernatural” theories – regardless of whether or not they involve God.

    Here I’d like to ask something else: Is even an explicitly “natural” hypothesis necessarily a scientific one? If the standard of possible falsifiability is required for a theory or speculation to really be scientific, it seems that either multiverses (regardless of whether such theories are properly viewed as natural or supernatural) are not “science” – or, if they are, that this requires reworking the definition of science to no longer rely on falsifiability.

    And if falsifiability is gone, how many theories suddenly become scientific? Is the God “theory”? Intelligent Design? The simulation argument? Brain in a vat?

  2. W Ryan said,

    December 24, 2009 at 9:32 am

    Given that scientific method starts from below and proceeds according to what can be known by natural means, it seems to me that both the “incompetence” approach and the “refutation” approach can bear fruit so long as they don’t stray outside their areas of competence in order to make metaphysical statements.

    If the multiverse theory could be supported scientifically, it would not really push at metaphysical reality in any significant way. It would only expand the zone of what is known by the means of natural science. If it was used to support a naturalist theory, that there was nothing outside of the system,wouldn’t it immediately stake a claim outside of the scientific zone of competence?

    I guess my point is that “methodological” naturalism seems appropriate, perhaps even preferable, so long as it doesn’t stray into philosophical naturalism.


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