Can Science Test the Validity of the Supernatural?
Posted by mattusmaximus on February 15, 2012
I wrote another article for the JREF Swift Blog recently, and this one focused on science, philosophy, and religion. It gets to a pretty fundamental question regarding those three endeavors, and I wanted to share it with you here. Enjoy!
Those of us who consider ourselves skeptics and supporters of science, and most especially those of us who are involved at some level in defending good science from the efforts of creationists to water down (or even eliminate) the teaching of evolution, will be familiar with this question. I think the answer is not simple and is much thornier, both philosophically and practically speaking, than many people (including many skeptics) would like to admit.
Let me first take a few minutes to outline some basics of the philosophy of science that are relevant to this discussion. This has to do with the nature of naturalism in science; more specifically, we need to make a very clear distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism.
Methodological naturalism is the practice of naturalism in science; in other words, as it is most commonly stated, there are naturalistic answers sought for scientific questions, and the question of potential supernatural answers (“miracles” if you will) is not even considered. It was the application of methodological naturalism in what was in the 19th-century still referred to as natural philosophy, which helped to define and distinguish modern science as it is currently practiced. In the view of many scientists, science as practiced doesn’t necessarily speak to the validity or non-validity of the supernatural precisely because it is constrained to seeking only natural causes for the phenomena we observe in the universe. In the view of pure methodological naturalism, science is agnostic on such matters, and this gives many believers in the supernatural an “out” for accepting science while retaining their beliefs.
By contrast, philosophical naturalism is usually defined as a philosophical position that there is no such thing as the so-called “supernatural” because the natural world is all that exists. This view assumes, a priori, that there is no separate realm of existence, which is distinguished from the natural world. Thus, in this view, anything, which is claimed to exist within the “supernatural” realm, either doesn’t exist at all or is being confused for some other kind of natural phenomenon which isn’t necessarily well understood by the claimant. It should come as no surprise that in the world of the philosophical naturalist there is no such thing as a miracle and there are no gods per se. There is no comfort for the supernaturalists in the worldview of philosophical naturalism.
Having laid that foundation, let us now get back to the specific case of the entire evolution-creationism discussion, where we can see this distinction between the methodological and philosophical view of naturalism on display. There are many pro-science groups, such as the National Center for Science Education, which take the view usually credited to the late Stephen J. Gould called non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) when discussing the thorny issues of science, religion, their intersection, and their conflicts. Basically NOMA takes a kind of modified position of methodological naturalism and is described by Gould as follows: “the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).” 
Even the National Academy of Sciences in the United States takes a viewpoint based upon NOMA, wherein, in regards to the evolution-creationism issue, they state: “Scientists, like many others, are touched with awe at the order and complexity of nature. Indeed, many scientists are deeply religious. But science and religion occupy two separate realms of human experience. Demanding that they be combined detracts from the glory of each.” 
Note that in the cases of taking the NOMA stance, there is nothing said one way or the other regarding the existence or non-existence of gods, miracles, or any kind of supernatural phenomena. However, there are many for whom the position of NOMA is rather unappealing, most notably because it seems to have the effect of stacking the deck in favor of what are considered unfounded beliefs and claims. For example, while the Catholic Church can tell its followers that the science for evolution is ironclad and therefore acceptable, that same religious institution routinely turns its back on science and completely ignores it regarding questions related to the authenticity of supposed religious relics such as the Shroud of Turin (which is, in case you didn’t know, a fake). This is merely one example where the believers and purveyors of the supernatural will try to have their cake and eat it too, the critics of NOMA would say, as they with one hand embrace science while with the other hand reject it. …