In his paper Naturalism, Science and the Supernatural, philosopher Steve Clarke argues that naturalism has a problem. Naturalism, Clarke points out, defers to science. And while fringe movements such as intelligent design appeal to the supernatural, mainstream accepted science does not. There are no contemporary examples, Clarke makes clear, of an explanation that appeals to the supernatural which is the best scientific explanation of some natural phenomenon. But such appeals have been made (and accepted) in the past, and there is no guarantee they won’t be in the future as well. Therefore naturalism, by deferring to science, cannot conclude against the supernatural. It is an interesting paper which raises, and misses, some important points.
Is science complete?
First, Clarke’s assurance that there is no contemporary explanation that appeals to the supernatural which is the best scientific explanation of some natural phenomenon, is rather obvious and practically a truism. Of course appeals to the supernatural don’t work for natural phenomenon. Natural phenomenon, by definition, are described by natural laws. Any appeal to the supernatural, by definition, will fail on Occam’s razor.
So yes, science has appealed to the supernatural in centuries past, but only because the phenomena in question was deemed to be supernatural. For example, it seemed to Newton that the best explanation for the origin of the solar system was that the creator placed the planets in their particular orbits. Likewise, it seemed to Paley that the best explanation for the origin of biological complexity was a designer. The origin of the solar system and biological complexity were deemed to be supernatural events.
This raises the thorny question of how one determines whether a phenomenon is natural. For instance, evolutionary philosopher Barbara Forrest states that science must be restricted to natural phenomena. In its investigations, science must restrict itself to a naturalistic methodology, where explanations must be strictly naturalistic, dealing with phenomena that are strictly natural.
But how do we determine whether a phenomenon is natural? If genuine science is to be restricted to natural phenomena, then how do we demarcate this genuine science from the pseudo science? It has been almost 30 years since Larry Laudan showed the severity of the demarcation problem which evolutionists continue erroneously to use as justification for their unlikely thesis.
Clarke’s criticism of naturalism too soft
Clarke’s thesis that naturalism’s deference to science renders it vulnerable to a possible, future appeal to the supernatural in the sciences is too conservative. Evolutionists motivate and justify evolution with several claims about the supernatural. Richard Dawkins, for instance, argues god would never have designed the blind spot in our retina. Such metaphysical truth claims are by no means limited to outspoken evangelists such as Dawkins. From seventeenth century tracts to today’s textbooks, evolution entails claims about the supernatural.
The fact that some of these evolutionists are atheists does not relieve them of their truth claims about the supernatural. They know god doesn’t exist, but they know a lot about him if he did exist. Such contradictions, or complexities to be more generous, in the naturalist’s position does not ease their predicament.
Clarke’s thesis that naturalism’s deference to science renders it vulnerable to the supernatural is not just a theoretical problem. That deference to science means that naturalism already today must acknowledge a commitment to metaphysical claims about the supernatural. How can they know such truths?