Blurring distinctions as part of the ‘Wedge Strategy’


As I said in a previous posting, there is nothing mysterious about the practice of methodological naturalism. It is what we expect people to use in everyday life and anyone who did not do so and saw god’s hand behind commonplace daily events would be viewed as some kind of religious nut, even by otherwise religious people.

So given the fact that methodological naturalism is just a fancy name for something that people use in their everyday lives without even thinking about it, how do you set about discrediting it? How do you make it appear to be some weird and esoteric principle that is used by a scientific cabal to keep contrary ideas out?

Phillip Johnson, an emeritus professor of Law and one of the main strategists of IDC and the author of books such as Darwin on Trial and Reason in the Balance, tries to do so by failing to distinguish between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. The latter term asserts that the natural world and natural causes are all that exist and is thus pretty much equivalent with atheism. As I have argued before, there is nothing about science that forces anyone to adopt philosophical naturalism though some people choose to do so. It is only methodological naturalism that is a bedrock principle of science.

Phillip Johnson tries to create a new category called ‘scientific materialism’ that conflates methodological and philosophical naturalism, and tries to imply that this is something that is only used in science. He often truncates even ‘scientific materialism’ to simply ‘naturalism’, so that he can then blur even further the important distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism.

But by referring to both as naturalism, and then decreeing that this is tantamount to atheism, IDC advocates try to drive a wedge between science and religion by arguing that scientists’ insistence on methodological naturalism is not a barrier to just IDC ideas, it is also a bar to belief in god. By this verbal sleight of hand, they hope to categorize the opposition to IDC ideas as opposition to god, and thus gain the allegiance of religious people to their cause.

For example, in his Darwin on Trial he says:

Naturalism assumes the entire realm of nature to be a closed system of material causes and effects, which cannot be influenced by anything from “outside.” Naturalism does not explicitly deny the mere existence of God, but it does deny that a supernatural being could in any way influence natural events, such as evolution, or communicate with natural creatures like ourselves. (Robert T. Pennock, Tower of Babel, p. 191)

His first sentence describes ‘naturalism’ the way I would describe ‘philosophical naturalism.’ The second sentence is a mish mash of both kinds of naturalism, confusing the issue. Methodological naturalism simply says scientists always look for material causes for natural events, just like plumbers and mechanics and doctors do, not that this is all there is.

When I talk to groups of lay people (both religious and non-religious) and describe methodological naturalism, most of them think that it is a perfectly rational way to operate. It seems like common sense, which it is. They can easily understand why abandoning it would be a bad idea in any field, not just science. This is why the IDC people are so desperate to blur its meaning and confuse it with philosophical naturalism.

And this is why we have to pay close attention to language in this discussion.

POST SCRIPT: Sand sculptures

Take a look at these sand sculptures. (Click on the thumbnail photos to see the full sculptures.) I am always amazed at the patience and painstaking care that people take over this kind of art, which is later destroyed in a matter of moments.

The Buddhist mandala sand paintings are another example. These paintings are painstakingly created by hand using grains of colored sand, just to be swept after the display is over.

In Buddhism, the impermanence of all things, the constancy of change, and the need to avoid getting attached to people and things are important philosophical underpinnings. So putting a vast amount of work into a work of art and then destroying it may be just a way of teaching these ideas.

Personally, I don’t know if I could ever put so much effort into something, knowing that it would not last.

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