Matt Dillahunty and Blake talk Methodological Naturalism

On August 6, Matt Dillahunty and I had a debate in Dallas on whether Jesus rose from the dead. It was a fun exchange, and Matt invited me after to visit him in Austin for us to record a post-debate review. We also recorded a great discussion (above) on his usage of “methodological naturalism” in seeking truth. What is this method? First:

Philosophical naturalism is “the idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world.”1

So by contrast:

Methodological naturalism is not this belief, but is instead a heuristic. It is where we aid our problem solving by only allowing natural explanations because it works well for immediate goals. We disallow explanations making reference to God or anything like God.

Methodological naturalism is a wonderful approach to certain questions, but my suspicion is that Matt has inappropriately used it, and that his usage is a big part of the reason supernatural causation (e.g. God’s raising Jesus) is so unacceptable to him. For Matt, it is at least one overwhelming reason why he would accept a) sooner than b):

a) The apostles simultaneously, as a group, hallucinated Jesus's appearing to them.
b) The apostles genuinely saw Jesus appear to them alive from the dead.

Because of the role this method plays in Matt’s regard for the resurrection hypothesis, I offered a closing statement where I attempted to parody his use of methodological naturalism. I spoke of methodological geologism (a neologism) and methodological Biblical inerrancy. The goal was to highlight how such methods can be misused and consequently frustrate one’s quest for truth (hear the closing statement in the video and/or read it in the footnote below).2

Methodological Terrestrialism (vs. Extraterrestrialism)


We discuss methodological naturalism in some detail, and ultimately a third parody: methodological terrestrialism. Here the method-user disallows extraterrestrial explanations (“aliens-did-it”). I invited Matt to pretend that the movie Independence Day was not just a movie, and that in fact several massive discs of metal from outer space have just arrived, hovering over places like the White House and the Pentagon all across the world. Then, suddenly, they simultaneously drop a beam of energy that obliterates everything below them. I could see a parody of Matt saying:

“But we can’t know it is actually aliens.
• We don't even know if aliens exist.
• We don't even know if aliens are possible (some think the big bang is determined, and earth may by necessity be the only planet capable of supporting complex life).3
• We don't even know if aliens could do this. (We have no prior instances.)
• We have been highly successful at explaining disasters by appealing to natural/terrestrial explanations.
• In fact every attempt so far to explain things by appealing to extraterrestrial intelligences has been a failure.
• The person who cries “I don’t know therefore aliens did it” is just being intellectually lazy. This is an argument from incredulity (or an argument from ignorance).
• Because of our method, we are blocked from supposing ‘aliens-did-it.’”
Using the same “sayings” and “defenses” that Matt uses to avert invoking supernatural explanation, we could perpetually avoid the conclusion that aliens are attacking us as well, even in this Independence Day situation. I could have pressed this better in our conversation, but I think the strategy was evident enough. Matt ended up saying he would want to believe it was aliens attacking, but I think he will have to drop some of his “defenses” to consistently do so. He wanted to say there were hallmarks of alien attack which get fulfilled in the scenario, but does that dissolve his prior challenges/attacks which are being parodied?

Have a listen. What do you think?

  1. This was the closing statement:
    As a Christian, I love methodological naturalism in the sciences. The Christians who worked it out since the beginning loved it too, because it's a great heuristic. But I don't stop there. So I was going to show you guys some geological phenomena that look designed, natural formations and objects that have fooled us. And because these can even fool geologists, I also endorse methodological geologism.... for geologists. When a geologist sees Stonehenge, I don't think he should be allowed to conclude it was designed as long as he's at work... that's not his job. It's an important heuristic because it prevents him from giving up too soon. In the same way, I don't think the scientist in general should be allowed to conclude a miracle. It's not his job. These higher order decisions go to philosophers with the requisite training.
    Anyways, so I love methodological naturalism, methodological geologism, and even methodological biblical inerrancy in seminaries because they all force us to look hard for answers and not give up early. They each disallow anomalies:
    Methodological naturalism disallows non-natural explanations.
    Methodological geologism disallows non-geological explanations.
    Methodological (Biblical) Inerrancy disallows non-inerrant explanations.
    I have found that people who take their methodological naturalism or methodological inerrancy out of their intended environments... usually do so having falling through the same 3 steps.
    Step 1: Both start with the good fruits of the track record of the method they are proposing.
    The methodological naturalist says, “Assuming naturalism, we have experienced great success in learning various truths about nature.” For example, using this method we’ve successfully learned how electrons work. Even people who believe in miracles grant that these are successes.
    The methodological inerrantist says, “Assuming Biblical inerrancy, we have experienced great success in learning various truths about the Bible.” For example, using this method, we historically have learned a lot about Paul, like that he was a Pharisee. Even people who believe the Bible is full of errors grant that these are successes.
    Step 2, they both then start talking about the failure of alleged anomalies:
    The methodological naturalist says, “There are all these stories, where we thought maybe we confirmed an instance of a non-natural entity or event, and we got burned for it.” For example, we thought lighting was explained by angry gods, and we were proven wrong. The methodological inerrantist says, “There are all these stories, where we thought maybe we confirmed an error in the Bible, and we got got burned for it.” For example, we thought Kings David and Solomon were not a real historical figures, and were proven wrong.
    Step 3, From these two things, both parties then perform a massive inference fallacy that sabotages their question for truth: The both say, “Because of this successful track record, and because of the repeated failure of anomalies, we need to methodologically assume there are no anomalies." No supernatural events, and no Bible errors. They both become "anomolaphobic." Meaning to them, anomalies are now unacceptable.
    Here is what an anomalophic Bible inerrantist sounds like. See if any of this sounds familiar:
    CATEGORY 1 statements say there is no way to verify the given anomaly. “The idea that the Bible has an error isn’t testable; it cant be verified.” (Remember the stories of when we thought we had an error and were burned.)
    “You have to demonstrate that its possible for the Bible to have an error before demonstrating that it actually has an error.”
    CATEGORY 2 statements say arguments for anomolies are just arguments from Incredulity. Your argument is: “I don’t know, therefore it’s an error”
    CATEGORY 3 statements talk about our standards of evidence. “Truth should be able to meet the standards.” But when we say standards, we mean the method, the method, of Biblical inerrancy.
    So, I hear some people say Matt is just so biased that he is preventing himself from truth, and I don’t know if I agree that it’s a bias. I suspect Matt is perfectly intellectually honest, but like inerrantists who use this reasoning, it can prevent Matt from ever learning if he’s wrong. And he admits that. My only hope is that he sees that he could be anomolaphobic about all sorts of things, like inerrancy, and that when he sees that, maybe it could lead him to think it’s not the best method after all.
  2. See Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, by Donald Brownlee and Peter Ward.