I was digging through the Facebook page of Inspiring Philosophy (IP from now on), when I came across the following:
Paulogia: For better of worse, science must employ methodological naturalism. So does history.
Capturing Christianity (CC from now on): Even if we grant this about history (which we shouldn’t), an honest search for truth about the world must go beyond methodological naturalism. An analogy: a comprehensive search for valuable objects on a beach must go beyond just using a metal detector.
IP: If we start by assuming the explanation must be natural it is no wonder you won’t ever find evidence for something beyond whatever you presuppose is natural.
If you’ve never listened to Paulogia, you can do so by going to his YouTube channel. He’s got some really great content, where he largely deals with fundamentalist Christians like Ken Ham, and Eric Hovind (they’re really low hanging fruit, but for some reason people believe these wingnuts.) But, I digress, so let’s go back to dealing with what’s been said.
The post starts with Paulogia making the claim that science employs methodological naturalism. This claim is pretty much tautologically true. Science is the methodological study of nature and the attempt to explain phenomena in terms of what we understand about natural. This should not be disputed by anyone. But what about history? Does this same restriction apply to historical methods? Yes, and no. I’ll explain later.
CC then claims that an honest search for truth about the world must go beyond methodological naturalism. While I can partly agree with him about this sentiment, there’s a huge problem lurking in the shadows: When it comes to explaining how the world works, we currently have nothing better than methodological naturalism. We lack any reliable method to investigate anything beyond nature (assuming that anything even exists beyond nature) The whole point he brings up about only using methodological naturalism is like searching for valuable objects on a beach using only a metal detector is disingenuous, at least until CC cannot show that they have something else to offer that is demonstrably reliable. Sitting on a lounge chair, and thinking really hard about where something valuable may be buried doesn’t actually do anything to help you find something buried!
Even more frustrating is IP’s little quip about this exchange. Yes, methodological naturalism assumes that causes are natural in origin, but it does this for a very good reason, as I’ve pointed out above. Show me that you have a reliable method of investigating the supernatural, and I’m totally on board with you. The problem is that assuming the supernatural has never once been shown to get us to the correct answer.
Back to the question of whether history relies on methodological naturalism. The answer is, yes, it does, but not in the same way that science does. The important thing to remember about history is that because it’s in the past, it’s now gone. We cannot repeat the past, but we do have the ability to try and recreate it as best as we can. The thing about our attempts to understand the past is that we rely on what we can show today. History largely relies on probabilities to say what the most probable explanation is. In some cases we can explain history very easily. In some cases we have poor information, and the biases of those involved, that it becomes very difficult to actually discern what could have happened. In some cases we have to admit that there simply isn’t sufficient information to be able say what actually happened in the past.
Did Jesus rise from the dead, after about 36 hours? As far as our understanding of today goes, people cannot rise from the dead. This influences history, and leads honest historians to admit that we don’t really have good historical reason, regardless of what stories we have, that say that Jesus’ resurrection is anything but a religious belief. Until we have good reason to believe that those stories aren’t simply the mistakes, and legends, of superstitious humans, history cannot accept that Jesus rose from the dead. Until the day that we have good empirical evidence that people can rise from the dead, the improbability of rising from the dead vastly outweighs the possibility of it happening. Events that appear to be otherwise impossible do not become the most probable simply because we have some (now long dead) people who claimed an event happened.
Methodological naturalism has its limits, but we shouldn’t look at those limits as if they’re somehow keeping us away from the truth, rather it’s just the opposite. Methodological naturalism has constraints in order to help keep our credulity, and our biases, in check! Christians would do well to understand this.